For certain names, hype precedes their early forays onto the biggest stages. It can stem from their artistry, a ruthless competitiveness, their nationality, standout junior results or a combination of any.
For former junior World No. 1 and Wimbledon boys’ singles champion, Roger Federer, it came even before he stepped foot on Court Suzanne-Lenglen for his Grand Slam debut in 1999. Cap backwards, dressed in the colours of the Swiss flag, the 17-year-old fell to Australia’s Pat Rafter at the first hurdle.
Few could have envisioned the remarkable Grand Slam resume he was about to fill. Twenty major titles later, ATPTour.com looks back at Federer’s defining moments from each of the four majors.
AUSTRALIAN OPEN – Champion 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2017, 2018; 103-15 win-loss
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Sixteen majors since his last Grand Slam triumph and over five years since he last met his great rival in a Grand Slam decider, Federer and Rafael Nadal were the last men standing in one of the most hyped major finals in history. It was January of 2017, Federer’s first official event back since he missed the second half of 2018, having undergone right knee surgery.
His straight-sets routing of 10th seed Tomas Berdych in the third round prompted the Czech to deem it a masterclass, and he backed it up to deny fifth seed Kei Nishikori in five sets. Fourth seed Stan Wawrinka pushed him in a gripping semi-final before the blockbuster final also went the distance. Nadal had wrested momentum to snatch the fourth set and a 3-1 lead in the deciding set, only for the Swiss to storm through the final five games and lift the roof off a packed Rod Laver Arena.
“It was one of the most special ones,” Federer reflected later that year. “I definitely put it in the top five at least, if not top three, of my best feelings I ever had after winning, what it meant to me, under the circumstances… on the comeback, in the finals against Rafa, having had the five-setters throughout the tournaments as well, against Kei, Stan, then also against Rafa.
“I had some tough battles against Rafa over the years, but that came totally unexpected I think for both of us to make the finals… I really just had a wonderful time in Melbourne. It felt, yeah, I was on this amazing journey.”
A year later, Federer successfully defended a major for the first time since his 2008 US Open triumph when he held off Croatian Marin Cilic in five sets. The 2018 Australian Open was his record-extending 20th Grand Slam trophy and ultimately his last.
“During the match I constantly thought about the fact that I could reach 20,” Federer said. “I was nervous the whole day, I thought about what would happen if I lose, if I win. That’s why I broke down during the speech.”
The tears of joy were a far cry from his toughest moment on Rod Laver Arena in 2009, when history had beckoned against Nadal. Victory in that final would have drawn the Swiss level with Pete Sampras’ record 14 Grand Slam titles. Instead he was consigned to a five-set defeat that ended in a tearful trophy presentation in which Nadal consoled his vanquished opponent on the dais.
Barring a third-round defeat to Andreas Seppi in 2015 and a fourth-round loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas in 2019, Federer reached the semi-finals or better 15 times from his past 17 Australian Open campaigns. His win against Marat Safin in the 2004 final came with an added bonus as it confirmed his ascent to No. 1 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings for the first time.
ROLAND GARROS – Champion 2009; win-loss 73-17
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The site of more agony than any other Slam, in the end Federer’s most crucial triumph came on the terre battue of Roland Garros. It was eight years before the Swiss finally reached the final in 2006 and history was on the line when he stood to become the first man in the Open Era since Rod Laver to hold all four majors concurrently.
That final ended as it did in three of the next five years – a defeat to his great clay-court tormentor Nadal. There were none more bruising than the 2008 decider in which he salvaged only four games
Then the breakthrough emerged when it had been perhaps least expected. For the first time in six years, Federer headed into Roland Garros in 2009 without the top seeding next to his name. He had fallen to Nadal in three of the past four Grand Slam finals, but when Swede Robin Soderling bludgeoned his way past the four-time champion in the fourth round, it opened the door for the 27-year-old Swiss.
The task of converting this rare opportunity in the Spaniard’s absence became an entirely new mental battle and nearly came unstuck in the semi-finals, before Federer rallied to deny Juan Martin del Potro in five sets. Victory came via a relatively routine final over Soderling.
“My dream as a boy was to win Wimbledon one day. I won that five times. To get [the Roland Garros trophy] at the end, as the last remaining Grand Slam, it’s an incredible feeling,” Federer said at the time. “The waiting and the age definitely has a big impact on how important and how nice this victory actually is. It’s been a long time coming.”
The sixth man to complete the career Grand Slam, Federer also tied Sampras’ all-time mark of 14 majors. While he never managed to come up with the trophy again, a statement semi-final triumph came in 2011 when he snapped the unbeaten Novak Djokovic’s 43-match winning streak.
Federer’s defeat to Nadal in the subsequent final was his last venture as far in Paris. As he narrowed his pursuit of Grand Slam trophies into his 30s, the Swiss elected to skip Roland Garros in four of his final six years on Tour to conserve energy for Wimbledon.
WIMBLEDON – Champion 2003-2007, 2009, 2012, 2017; win-loss 105-14
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Seven-time Wimbledon champion and World No. 1 Pete Sampras had not lost at the All England Club in 31 matches before he ran into the 19-year-old Federer in the fourth round on Manic Monday in 2001. It would be the only time the two legends of the sport crossed paths and it was the young Swiss who landed the coming-of-age victory on Centre Court, 7-5 in the fifth set.
“It was his moment. It’s grass-court tennis. One minute you feel like you have it, the next minute you’re walking off the court,” Sampras said. “Federer played a great game.”
Sampras never reclaimed his Wimbledon title and while Federer fell to Tim Henman in the quarter-finals he had truly announced himself as a name for the future.
“This match will give me as much confidence as I can get,” he said after beating Sampras. “This is the biggest win of my life.”
Expectations proved a burden too great when Federer fell at the opening hurdle the following year, but his maiden Grand Slam title was just around the corner. Seeded fourth, he had Australian Mark Philippoussis’ measure in a straight-sets final in 2003. It set off a blistering stretch of five straight Wimbledon final triumphs – two over Andy Roddick and two over Nadal – but the Spaniard had closed the gap.
In near darkness, in the match many argued was the greatest Grand Slam championship match of all time, Nadal finally prevailed in the 2008 decider. It marked Federer’s first loss in a major final outside Paris and at four hours and 48 minutes, was the second longest final in Wimbledon history.
“Towards the end, I was virtually not saying anything in the commentary box,” John McEnroe told the BBC. “I thought what I was witnessing was so great and the players were rising to the occasion – anyone watching could tell it was going to be a match that people would talk about for generations to come.”
Federer had Sampras’ record Grand Slam haul in sight and after he drew level at Roland Garros in 2009, he pulled clear with another remarkable five-set triumph – this time over Andy Roddick in a repeat of the 2004 and 2005 finals. The fifth set ended 16-14 and took 95 minutes alone to complete.
“I walked out on to the court and then I saw the Royal Box that day, seeing the calibre of players who were there to witness that moment for Roger Federer. I said that it felt like I was the guy who was trying to shoot Bambi that day,” Roddick said.
By the time The Championships rolled around again in three years’ time, Federer had not added a major trophy in 2.5 years, his longest drought since he won his first. In a match that finished under Centre Court’s roof, Federer levelled Sampras’ record seven Wimbledon titles with his victory over Andy Murray.
No one could have foreseen the drought he was about to endure and against all odds, break. Federer’s 2013 and 2014 seasons represented a new low for early surprise Slam departures. His defeat to Sergiy Stakhovsky as defending champion in the second round at the All England Club in 2013 was the first time Federer had failed to reached the quarter-finals or better at a major since Roland Garros 2003.
Five years since his last trophy run on Centre Court, however, Federer backed up his shock Australian Open triumph from 2017 to land a record eighth Wimbledon over Cilic. The unlikely prospect of a ninth victory at SW19 became suddenly real after Federer had defeated Nadal to reach the 2019 final against Djokovic.
Five times, the Swiss went down in a deciding set at Wimbledon, but none stung quite like this. Two championship points went begging before the Serbian denied him 7-6(5), 1-6, 7-6(4), 4-6, 13-12(3) after four hours and 57 minutes in the longest Wimbledon final in history.
US OPEN – Champion 2004-2008; win-loss 89-14
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While yet to have added his final two majors, when pressed to rank his greatest Grand Slam moments during his 2017 Wimbledon campaign, Federer cited his 2009 Roland Garros triumph, his 2017 Australian Open victory, his first Wimbledon in 2003 and his fifth, against Roddick, in 2009. “Then US Open when I beat Agassi,” Federer said. “Those are the ones floating around.”
Three times the Swiss had Agassi’s measure in New York, including in 2001 when he thrashed the then World No. 2 in the fourth round. In 2004, en route to his maiden US Open title, Federer survived the American in a five-set quarter-final before beating Henman and Lleyton Hewitt back-to-back, but it was his title defence a year later, that stood out.
Having denied Hewitt in the semi-finals, Federer summoned a four-set triumph over the eight-time major winner in the final. “I think Roger is the best I’ve played against,” Agassi said after the defeat. “To watch him evolve has been amazing.”
It was the second in a string of five straight triumphs at Flushing Meadows and could have been six had he converted one of two championship points in the fourth set against 20-year-old Argentine, del Potro in the 2009 final. Federer had prevailed in all six prior ATP Head2Head meetings and was on a 41-match winning streak at Flushing Meadows before he fell in a five-set boilover.
“I left that match with a lot of regrets,” Federer said ahead of meeting del Potro in the 2017 quarter-finals. “[It] feels like one of those matches I would like to play over again… I was not too disappointed I don’t think because I had a great run, but it ended my five-year reign here in New York.”
There was more heartache in the ensuing two years, when victory would again be snatched from his grasp. In both the 2010 and 2011 semi-finals, Djokovic saved two match points to reach the final.
It was a telling blow as Federer never beat his Serbian rival at the US Open again and only made one more final on Arthur Ashe Stadium in his subsequent nine appearances. That final was a 2015 defeat to Djokovic, where a raucous Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd had willed him on to repeat his shock triumph over the World No. 1 from Roland Garros four months earlier.
“They were unbelievable,” Federer said of the crowd. “Were they better than ever? Possibly.”