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Roger Federer, pictured above at Roland Garros in 1999, made his ATP Tour debut in Gstaad in 1998.

Federer's ATP Debut: 'I Never Imagined He Was Going To Be One Of The Best'

The Swiss star played his first ATP Tour event at 1998 Gstaad when he was 16

Lucas Arnold Ker calls himself a tennis lover and does not hesitate to acknowledge that racquets and tennis balls were “everything” for a large part of his life. The 45-year-old Argentine, for whom tennis runs in the family with his father and brother both playing professionally, reached the doubles final at Roland Garros in 1997 and climbed as high as No. 77 in FedEx ATP Rankings.

One thing he’ll never forget is facing Roger Federer at the 1998 Swiss Open Gstaad, Federer’s ATP Tour debut. Arnold Ker defeated the 16-year-old home favourite 6-4, 6-4 in 80 minutes. 

“I’m often reminded that I beat him... but not many know that it was his first match on the ATP Tour," Arnold Ker told ATPTour.com. “I never thought or imagined that Federer was going to be one of the best in the world and in history, I really didn’t."

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At that tournament Arnold Ker, then No. 88 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, fell in the final round of qualifying. He competed in the main draw as a lucky loser thanks to Tommy Haas’ withdrawal due to food poisoning. Arnold Ker had never set eyes on Federer, who had just been crowned the Wimbledon boys' singles champion. 

“I had to play a Swiss junior and at the time Switzerland didn’t have much of a [tennis] history,” Arnold Ker said. “They weren’t very good players.”

That match, on 7 July 1998, was the first of over 1,500 tour-level matches for Federer. Arnold Ker broke the Swiss four times in his triumph.

“Roger had a good serve, a good forehand... but his backhand was stunted, not good at all,” Arnold Ker said. “I remember moving him over there all the time and that allowed me to beat him solidly in two sets.”

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Did Arnold Ker imagine at the time that he had just faced a future World No. 1 and the winner of 20 Grand Slam titles?

“It’s incredible that he progressed as a player to be one of the best in history,” Arnold Ker said.

Federer also recalled the match a few months back in an interview with Argentine newspaper La Nación.

“I was disappointed because I was supposed to play Tommy Haas, but he had a stomach bug and, instead of playing on Centre Court, they put me on Court 1,” Federer said. “But it was still full of fans and it was really crazy, because I had won [the] Wimbledon juniors.

“I remember Lucas, who was from the generation of players who played serve and volley. He served to my backhand with spin and I had come from Wimbledon, where the ball bounces at a different height and I struggled. He was more experienced. I played well from what I remember. I lost 6-4, 6-4, but it was a great experience to have the media spotlight on me playing in front of a lot of people, getting used to that kind of pressure.”

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For his part, Arnold only crossed paths on court with Federer one more time, in doubles. When he talks about tennis with his students today and remembers old times, the Argentine normally tells them to keep an eye on the Swiss legend. Federer still surprises him by continuing to improve despite his greatness.

Arnold Ker teaches tennis “more socially than competitively” because he prioritises his family, even moreso since battling testicular cancer in 2007, which he beat after countless chemotherapy sessions.

“Until I was probably 30, I spent 24 hours a day thinking about tennis,” Arnold Ker said. “Since I was little I knew I wanted to be a professional and I can say that I gave it everything.”