I was devastated for him. When Roger Federer clonked his final stroke into the net Sunday, I was crushed. In what looked like a storybook title run for the 32-year-old, Federer finally broke down and Novak Djokovic won his second Wimbledon championship.
I did not always like Federer. In fact, for almost a decade, I rooted against no player more than Federer.
I saw Federer in my first trip to Flushing Meadows in 2001. He was a scrawny 20-year-old playing in his second U.S. Open. I watched second-seeded Andre Agassi down Federer, the No. 13 seed, in straight sets in the fourth round. Tenth-seeded Pete Sampras followed the match with a four-set victory over sixth-seeded Patrick Rafter.
Agassi and Sampras met in a classic quarterfinal that saw Sampras win 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6. Neither U.S. man broke the other that night. It was one of the final showdowns between two American legends in the end of maybe the greatest era in American tennis (Sampras-Agassi-Courier-Chang Era from the late 80s to the early 00s).
Federer was seeded 13th again in Queens in 2002 before losing to 32nd-seeded Max Mirnyi in the fourth round. In 2003, fresh off his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, Federer fell in the fourth round for the third straight time, losing to 13th-seeded David Nalbandian.
Then he won five straight U.S. Opens. From Wimbledon 2003 to the 2010 Australian Open, Federer won 16 of 27 Grand Slams (and made 22 finals). From Wimbledon 2004 to the 2010 Australian Open, Federer did not miss a Grand Slam final. From Feb. 2004 to Aug. 2008, he was the No. 1 ranked player in the world for 237 weeks.
There was a part of me that held a grudge against Federer. For almost a decade, he was the kryptonite to American tennis. No American has won a Grand Slam since the 2003 U.S. Open, when Andy Roddick, days after his 21st birthday, appeared to emerge as the future of tennis. After his championship over Juan Carlos Ferrero, Roddick returned to Grand Slam finals four times. He lost to Federer in all four tries (three Wimbledon, one U.S. Open). The final straw was a make-or-break five-setter in 2009 at Wimbledon, which saw Federer win the final set 16-14 (Roddick finished his career 4-22 against Federer).
While Roddick proved the most befuddled by Federer, other Americans felt his blockade. Agassi won his first three career matches against Federer. Roger won the last eight. Federer defeated Agassi all three times they met in Grand Slams tournaments after the 2001 U.S. Open -- the final meeting a four-set Federer win at the 2005 U.S. Open final. It was Agassi's third-to-last Grand Slam appearance.
James Blake tried his hand at Federer. Federer took their first eight meetings, including a four-set quarterfinal at the 2006 U.S. Open. When Blake finally broke through for a two-set quarterfinal win at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it was as if a weight had been lifted off American men's shoulders. Blake lost the semifinal to Chile's Fernando Gonzalez, 11-9 in the third set, and fell in straight sets to Djokovic in the bronze-medal match. American fans barely remember Blake was left off the podium. Blake beat Federer and that was what mattered. He was the only American to beat him in a major tournament during Federer's prime.
Other Americans tried. Taylor Dent was 0-2 against Federer. Robby Ginepri is 0-5. Mardy Fish is 1-9. Sam Querrey is 0-2.
Sampras lost his only match against Federer, a five-set 2001 Wimbledon loss when Federer was 19.
John Isner, the current highest-ranked American at No. 11 in the world is 1-4 against Federer. His only win came on clay in a 2012 Davis Cup match.
I saw Federer knock off Isner in the third round of the 2007 U.S. Open. Isner was a 22-year-old fresh out of the University of Georgia playing in his first Grand Slam. He took the first set 7-6 at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
I was pumped up for the young American, but I was frustrated with the crowd. On his own turf, Isner could not turn the audience in his favor. The day crowd wailed for Federer, the No. 1 player in the world and then-three-time defending U.S. Open champion. The underdog Isner fought hard, but Federer edged him in four sets. The crowd raged for Federer while giving Isner a respectful tennis clap.
The most memorable match in the past decade might be the 2008 Wimbledon final when Rafael Nadal ended Federer's five-Wimbledon streak with a five-set win. Or Federer's 2009 five-set Wimbledon title over Roddick. Or Juan Martin del Potro's 2009 U.S. Open final upset over Federer. Or Federer's four-set 2012 Wimbledon championship after Brit Andy Murray took the first set.
In each case, I found myself rooting against Federer. In his prime, he was a machine. Federer didn't hit the ball the hardest, he didn't look the strongest, he didn't move the quickest and he didn't exude the most swag. But almost every time, he won. Nadal is flashier, Djokovic is more animated and Murray is more emotional. But all emerged after being controlled by Federer.
Then, something funny happened Sunday. I rooted for Federer. After a decade of viewing him as the enemy, I rooted for the Swiss national. I wanted nothing more than to see déjà vu. All of a sudden, Federer was Jack Nicklaus at the 1986 Masters, Jimmy Connors at the 1991 U.S. Open, Dara Torres a the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Tim Duncan at the 2014 NBA Finals.
Federer was the underdog -- the crowd favorite. He was an old, former champion, past his prime, but making a run.
On TV, it was easy to feel the Federer love. The London crowd wavered with Federer's winners and his unforced errors. The greatest tennis player ever made what for we all know, may be his last legitimate run at a Grand Slam title.
It was no offense to Djokovic, a fan favorite in his own right. On this afternoon, it was Federer who earned the crowd and this author's fandom. For me, it took over a decade, but Federer had it.
My admiration for Federer did not happen overnight. Roger has grown on me over the years.
This MLB season, we hear so much about Derek Jeter's impeccable image. As the biggest star in the biggest city on its biggest team, Jeter has avoided even the slightest nick on his reputation. He played the game "the right way" and always gave back to the sport, the fans and the community.
Federer created the same legacy, but on an international scale. He has won more Grand Slams titles and made more money than anyone in the sport, and his image record is spotless (even with a friendship with Tiger Woods). He does not throw racquets and he does not complain about calls. He has embraced foreign cultures. (If you close your eyes, does it even sound like he has an accent?) while maintaining a loyalty to his native Switzerland. (He has represented the nation in the Olympics and the Davis Cup, and he helped groom another star, Stanislas Wawrinka). He married a fellow player, the former Mirka Vavrinec.
When he wins, he commends his opponent. When he loses, he tips his hat to the victor.
It was touching to see Federer's twin girls (he also has twin boys) in the crowd Sunday afternoon. The teenage Euro-looking dude with the thick headband in the early 2000s turned into a father. In his post-match interview, Federer mentioned how glad he was for their attendance, although they probably could not comprehend what they were watching. It was fitting to see Federer's greatest emotion, at this point in his life, shown toward his children and not his tennis game.
Not that his tennis game is anything to scoff at. At the end of the 2000s, Federer's play clearly declined as his age increased. Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, each with a few years on Federer, gained an extra step. When they each broke through (on surfaces other than clay), it took a little bit out of Federer each time.
A star athlete's greatest challenge is deciding when to bow out. Sampras retired with a U.S. Open title. Agassi left a year after making the U.S. Open final. On the women's side, in recent memory, Kim Clijsters retired within two years of her fourth and final grand slam title.
There is no doubt Federer fell past his prime after 2010. His grand slam semifinal streak ended and he started losing to opponents he would have wiped off the court a half-decade earlier. His body would never let him be the dominant force he once was.
But Federer would not let that derail his career. He reinvented his game to help him condition for grueling matches against younger players. After a two-year championship hiatus, Federer stormed back into the 2012 Wimbledon final, where he knocked off Murray. He reclaimed his status as the number one player in the world for what may be the final time (Before losing the crown for the latest time in Nov. 2012, Federer topped off a record 302 combined weeks as the number one ranked player in the world).
Although he may have taken another step backwards, Federer again reinvented himself. He navigated his way through this year's Wimbledon bracket with relative ease, looking more like 2006 Roger than 2014. He dropped just one set before the final, the first set in the quarterfinals against Wawrinka.
In the fifth set Sunday, Federer was finally humanized. He strived with his fast-paced service game and textbook one-handed backhand, but he looked exhausted. The ironman showed he is 32 going on 33. Federer waved at Djokovic's serves and drilled playable ground strokes into the net. He made as many adjustments as he could to push the match to the brink, but in the end, Federer did not have any more gas.
Perhaps the telling moment of the bout came in the post-match interviews. Djokovic and Federer commended each other, but Federer made one particular statement that jumps out.
"See you next year," he told London as he parted ways with the microphone.
In the nicest way possible, that is Federer saying, "You're damn right I'll be back next year."
Federer is not done. Part of the reason fans envy him as a person is his perseverance. In 25 years, when we think of Federer, we will think of his remarkable 2003-2010 stretch. Regardless of what happens over the next couple years, Roger Federer will never again be the Roger Federer we will remember. We remember Jack Nicklaus as an 18-time major champion before his 1986 title at August at age 46. Even if Federer would have won Sunday or if he wins one more Grand Slam in his career, we will remember him for his 18 Grand Slams (is that poetic?) and not only the grand slam he wins at thirty-something.
But Federer just won't give in. He will be 33 in a month. In men's tennis, that should be the twilight of one's career. For Federer, it is just a different chapter in his career as one of the greatest players in the game. Federer will take this runner-up experience and build on it. In his mind, he will be back to a Grand Slam final. It may not be in two months at the U.S. Open, but it will happen. He may not believe he can be the best in the sport anymore, but for seven matches, Federer believes he can string together a championship performance. He is not ready to go out on his terms, yet.
That is why the switch has flipped. Roger the King is now Roger the Underdog. He is Patrick Roy in 2001 or Tom Watson in 2009. This is why Patrick McEnroe mentioned he met an American fan who traveled overnight to see Federer go for another Grand Slam title at Wimbledon on Sunday.
A part of me regrets rooting against Federer for so long. It was so easy. He always won and he always beat Americans. From Michael Chang's 1989 French Open title to Roddick's 2003 U.S. Open win, American men won 28 of 45 Grand Slam tournaments. They won zero since (credit also goes to Nadal, Djokovic and Murray).
I missed out on the Roger bandwagon. Federer is not just the classiest tennis player of all-time. He may be the classiest superstar athlete of all-time. So what if he does not throw racquets or burst with emotion? He won and he did it with class. Not many other athletes can say that.
We will not have much more time watching Federer. Despite his perseverance, there is no doubt Federer's tennis future is shorter than his past career. But Federer will play until he drops. He will give us one last wind of world-class tennis.
We all should enjoy it. That means old Federer fans, old anti-Federer fans and everyone in between.
I know I will.
Author's note: An earlier version of the story mentioned the anecdote about an American fan was told by John McEnroe. It was told by brother Patrick McEnroe.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.
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