He was just another kid with a forehand and a haircut. A decent enough prospect from a land known more for its high mountains than its high rankings. But, truth be told, not a single soul in tennis suspected that this long haired lad - so soft spoken in the locker room, so silky smooth on court - would someday challenge the most hallowed record in tennis, Pete Sampras' mark of 14 Slam singles titles.
Sure, kid Roger Federer did win a big junior tournament. He struggled long and hard to tame his ferocious anger and scored a historic victory over the still-in-his-prime Sampras at Wimbledon in '01.
Yet boy Fed failed to explode onto the scene. The death of his beloved coach, Peter Carter, and his youthful ("Hey, Roger, don't you realize you're Fed?") lack of belief slowed his emergence. In fact, we once touted Roger as the best player never to reach a Slam final.
But a big win in Hamburg in '02 and his '03 Wimbledon triumph opened the door wider than an alpine valley. A born to win wonder was unleashed. Jaws dropped and fans marveled as the aspiring lad shot to the top. Leaving Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin and Andy Roddick in his dust, he collected one championship after another. Gaining our attention - a crescendo of adulation grew: such a forehand, what a player, a gentleman champion. Seemingly putting a permafreeze on the rankings, he camped out at No. 1 forever (237 weeks) and won nine majors in three years. Whew! So the world bowed at his Nikes - the anointment began. Tiger sauntered by. Fashion editors swooned. Metro Roger, hip in black, was on magazine covers or in commercials, on top of big skyscrapers in Dubai or doing charity work in South African villages. Brutally honest, at times stunningly self-appreciative, the CEO of Federer Inc. was one global celebrity who was more than comfy in the limelight, suffering little of the twitchy discomfort so many other No. 1s displayed. (Think: McEnroe, Lendl, Wilander, Sampras, Hewitt.) His sizzling four-year run on top was a smack down. He not only bagged 12 of his 14 Slams during those heady days ('04-'07), he gave us flowing images of a singular beauty, an expansive athletic ballet like no other. Soon we all but took for granted the sublime Federerian repertoire: explosive groundies, imposing serve, quiet-amidst-the-storm focus, feathery lightness, lightening speed and that intoxicating grace. His modus operandi was disarming: the man made the miraculous seem ordinary.
Sure, there were occasional lapses. So what that he lost to a wedgie-tugging kid named Nadal at the '05 and '06 French Opens? Many have fallen on the Parisian dirt. Never mind that he could almost taste the French title in '07 before the meddlesome Majorcan changed the menu.
But his 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 humiliation by Rafa in the '08 French final was quite another matter. You don't bagel Superman. And, worse yet, four weeks later on his home court in the English dusk, Fed saw his beloved Wimby crown slip through his fingers in what was soon dubbed "The Greatest Match Of All Time." Roger said the result was a disaster, but then righted his ship to win the Olympic doubles and the ("Hey, don't write me off") U.S. Open before again falling to his Spanish nemesis in Melbourne. Tears famously flowed.
Indeed, the maturing, vastly improved Nadal had packaged a fearsome, more-potent-than-ever arsenal. Both his backhand and serve were vastly improved and more varied. He stepped in on court, played with a growing confidence that allowed him to unleash bold tactics and became an unafraid risk-taker. All the while, he imposed that left-handed, high-bouncing, forehand that so exposed Fed's pretty (but ultimately susceptible) one-handed backhand, a fatal flaw in an otherwise sublime game.
Thanks to Rafa and a mysterious bout with mono, Federer's presumed cakewalk past Sampras' mark of 14 Slams hit the ("not so fast") pause button and Pete's once sensible prediction that the Swiss would win 18 or 19 majors now seemed a major stretch.
Roger's swoon left Federer-ologists noting that he was now playing against the cruelest of rivals: the very stratospheric expectations he himself had created. He was still the second best player on this planet. But Baryshnikov didn't stumble; Picasso didn't reach for his eraser. So why did our game's poet-in-residence suddenly seem artless?
Fed's once flawless groundies began to spray. ("Is there a laser repairman in the house?") Imperceptibly, the man's confidence waned. 'Joe Palookas' straight from the middle ranks brought him down, while critics shouted, "Where in heaven is this guy's coach?" All great aging champions jealously defend their realm against pretenders. So where was Fed's Plan B, his counter-offensive to subdue Nadal's assault? Incredibly, while losing to Novak Djokovic in Miami, the supposedly serene one smashed his Wilson and then offered a tired epithet: "Thank goodness the hard-court season is over."
Could this be? Was this the inevitable descent: a noble champ on the decline, battered by all those expectations. But, unlike Bjorn Borg, who fled the game at 27, Roger - who never used his mono as an excuse - embraces adversity and adores lore. And he never lost the faith he would prevail, even on clay.
"I had the feeling I gave myself too many opportunities over the years at the French Open," Roger noted. "Pete [Sampras] was in the semis once. I was in the final three times ['06 through '08] and was able to win [on clay] in Hamburg four times."
So after the man had wandered for 10 years in the French wilderness, the tennis gods smiled on RF at RG (Roland Garros), where his prime foes tumbled. Down went Djokovic, down went Andy Murray and, most significantly, down went the colossus of clay, Nadal, who, in his 31 previous French Open matches, had never tasted defeat.
Suddenly, Federer had to win, he must win - victory the only option. Destiny shouted from above, still Roger struggled.
After toughing out a 7-6(8), 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-2 win over Jose Acasuso, he blasted a clutch inside-out forehand for the ages and came from two sets down to survive a fourth round trap match against aging Tommy Haas 6-7, 5-7, 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 and, in the semis, he battled from behind to drop the towering Argentine boy wonder Juan Martin Del Potro 3-6, 7-6, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4.
But the Herculean struggle took its toll. Roger reported that you get "a feeling you have deep within yourself. You think 'okay, I'm nervous, I don't know why'. You can't sleep well, you don't manage to eat well, you feel a bit dizzy, and you don't know exactly why."
All of tennis knew why. With the door opened wide, Fed could at last corral the one major that had eluded him. He could achieve what only five others (Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Andre Agassi) had done before and win a career Slam. He could tie Sampras' mark of 14 Slams and his backers could claim that he be given that unofficial and elusive (yet most coveted) of crowns - The Greatest of All Time.
Every player has a flaw in their career. Tilden, Budge, Kramer, Gonzalez and Hoad all performed in a long ago era with far different equipment. Laver had some splendid seasons, but lots of gaps. Sampras won only three clay titles and reached but one French semi. But Federer's flaw was not a matter of a problematic career arc or difficulty on a particular surface. It was his inability to win the French and the inconvenient truth that this past year he simply wasn't the best player in the game. After all, at crunch time, he had lost time and again to Nadal on the biggest stages. Overall, he was a dismal 7-13 against the Spaniard and he also had a 2-6 record against No. 3 Andy Murray. Ouch!
But tennis is played in arenas against the foes before you, not in the arcane calculations of the mind. So on a blustery gray Sunday of the French final, Rafa, subdued by defeat and hobbled by a suspect knee, was by a Majorcan pool while Federer had to face the unknown and answer but one question. Would little-known Robin Soderling, a zoning 6-foot-3 Swede, continue his power run that had taken down Nadal, Nikolay Davydenko and Francisco Gonzalez, or would Fed step up to shake Destiny's hand?
From the outset there was little doubt. History, not suspense, is what propelled this day. This man would not be denied. Blasting brutal, whiplash forehands as in his glory days, serving 16 aces with frightening and timely abandon, adeptly unleashing devious drop shots, flashing his underrated speed, staying on mission despite a flag-waving intruder, wrestling to keep his mind in the moment while knowing full well he was on Glory's doorstep, Federer kept at bay a dangerous foe who cared little for tennis protocol. Simply put, Roger saved his best Federerian tennis for the end.
As the theatre intensified, haunting memories receded. Past Parisian humiliations, Wimbledon "could-of-beens," the misery of Melbourne with its wet tears of despair, were now so yesterday. Gone, too, was that cruel staccato of framed mishits, which so often punctuated a mean season of slumping shoulders, miffed expressions symbolized by that battered racket in Miami.
Now "our Roger" was back, back where he belonged - regal, unstoppable. Yes, Soderling overcame a case of the yips, forced a tie-break and mounted a modest counter-offensive.
But history was on the march this day, and at 5:08, when a Swedish return of serve tamely dropped into the Paris net, Federer fell to his knees in stunned victory, bowing twice to the red earth that so long had defied him. His face became jelly, overwhelmed by an ocean of emotion. Lips quivering, his trademark ("real men show emotion") tears flowed, the summit achieved, his quest a triumph.
"It's absolutely amazing," he told John McEnroe. "The most satisfying win of my career, next to my first Wimbledon, because it took so long...It's unbelievable. Now the question is, am I the greatest of all time? I don't know."
Later he told the press that his win was the victory "that removes the most pressure off my shoulders, now and until the end of my career I can really play with my mind at peace and no longer hear that I've never won Roland Garros."
Federer confided that he "knew the day [would come that] Rafa won't be in the finals, I will be there and I will win...I fought for this moment and stayed positive and calm when things maybe weren't going so well...[So] it doesn't matter when I retire, I'll be at peace. I can walk away from this game tomorrow."
Roger took pride in not being "derailed by losing a couple Grand Slam finals against Rafa...[I] was able to regroup and equal Pete's record here in Paris. It is unbelievable."
What, too, is unbelievable, note those pesky Federer-ologists, is that Roger continues one of the most dreamy four month on-court/off-court runs any athlete approaching the autumn of their career might achieve. After all, he got married on April 11, beat his nemesis Nadal on May 16 to win Madrid and then tied Sampras' mark in Paris.
Now he could both re-claim his beloved Wimbledon title and hold sole possession of the game's greatest mark before experiencing a far different kind of bliss, that most transformative moment - the birth of a first child - who, in this case will be coming into the world with a certain badge of honor, knowing that they are the offspring of The Mighty Fed - who many simply claim is The Greatest of All-Time.