Roger Federer's 10 Most Memorable Matches
Lists are typically a highly subjective business, but when the subject is Roger Federer, it’s hard to go wrong. The Swiss champion’s extraordinary body of work extends beyond 1,500 matches, 103 titles and 20 major championships.
Three of these feature Federer’s greatest rival, Rafael Nadal, with three more opposite Novak Djokovic. David Nalbandian, Andy Roddick, Juan Martin del Potro and Stan Wawrinka also make dashing appearances. Four of these matches came on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, Federer’s favourite working space.
And memorable doesn’t mean simply victory; Federer lost some spectacular matches – those heartbreaking defeats were, in some ways, as indelibly moving as his huge wins. That vulnerability is one of the many reasons he’s been so endearing, so enduring to fans, who over the years shared those highs and lows.
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This was the day the Open Era opened up entirely. Pete Sampras’14 Grand Slam singles titles were the standard until Federer collected his 15th – and set off a thrilling three-way race with Nadal and Djokovic that still hasn’t been settled.
That this came one year after Federer left the All England Club in the wake of a devastating loss to Nadal underlines his resilience and exceptional character. This, too, was a five-set thriller that was decided in extra time, as it were, some 30 gut-wrenching games. It was decided when Roddick, serving at 14-15, missed a pair of forehands. To that point, Federer had failed to convert a single break point.
It was the longest men’s Grand Slam final in history at 77 games and the longest fifth set, surpassing the 20 games from Roland Garros in 1927. By the clock, it was four hours, 16 minutes. While Roddick came in with the reputation as the bigger server, it was Federer who finished with 50 aces, nearly twice as many as Roddick. He also produced 107 winners, against only 38 unforced errors. And so, his 15th major title came on the same court as his first, six years earlier.
“I’m happy I broke the record here because this is always the tournament that meant the most to me,” Federer said. “It definitely feels like coming full circle, starting it here and ending it here.”
Federer had beaten Djokovic seven months earlier at the Nitto ATP Finals in London – and then Djokovic went on a 43-match winning streak. Three of those came against Federer – in the Australian Open semi-finals, the Dubai final and the Indian Wells semi-finals. In truth, much of the pre-event anticipation surrounded a potential final matchup between Djokovic and Nadal – and the Spaniard's 44-1 tournament record.
Djokovic, looking for his first title at Roland Garros, sailed through the first five matches, including a walkover granted by Fabio Fognini in the quarter-finals. Federer, for his part, had five straight-sets victories, the last two against Wawrinka and Gael Monfils.
Facing a pair of set points in the 70-minute opening frame, Federer managed to force it to a tie-break, which he won. Taking four of the first five games, Federer won the second set and — though he didn’t know it at the time — Djokovic was confronted by some enormous odds; he would attempt to become the first player in 175 matches to beat Federer from a two-set deficit.
Djokovic rallied to win the third set, but the fourth-set tie-break, punctuated by Federer’s 18th ace of the match, proved unattainable. The Swiss reacted with an emotional celebration by his standards, particularly for a semi-final victory, wagging his finger and letting out a massive roar before launching a ball into the stands.
“It almost feels like I’ve won the tournament, which is not the case,” Federer said. Indeed, it would not come to pass as Federer fell to Nadal in the final – the best chance he would have for a second French title for the rest of his career.
In retrospect, this probably wasn’t a fair fight, for the London Olympics were played at Federer’s favorite tennis venue in the world – the All England Club. On Centre Court, the office where he did so much business over the years, Federer was usually infallible.
But when Del Potro, the genial Argentine, won the first set, Federer was forced to scramble. Federer continually came forward and served big when he had to, winning the second-set tie-break and surviving the long, emotionally draining third set. Federer converted only his second break point in the deciding set's the 35th game – three unforced errors hurt Del Potro badly – and the Swiss served it out in the 36th with a flourish.
At four hours, 26 minutes, it was the longest three-set men’s match of the Open era and locked down what would be his first individual Olympic medal. Four years earlier, Federer and countryman Wawrinka won the doubles in Beijing.
The final, against Great Britain’s Murray, was a rematch of the Wimbledon title match played less than one month earlier. Federer won that match in four sets, but Murray – perhaps the only player the Wimbledon crowd embraced more than Federer – was a straight-sets winner, leaving Federer with the silver medal.
Federer, looking for his seventh title at the year-end event, appeared destined for a collision with Djokovic in the final. But an inspired effort from his fellow Swiss and a handful of heart-stopping escapes ultimately made their semi-final at the O2 Arena the main event.
Fast forward to the third set, where Wawrinka surged to a 5-3 lead and eventually carved out three match points. Federer saved each one with help from some sloppy work at net from Wawrinka, but there was more work to do in the tie-break. Federer won his serve at 5/6 – erasing match point No. 4 – and the final two points to close it out.
The match ran two hours and 48 minutes, but it felt infinitely longer than that. In fact, Federer was forced to withdraw from the final against Djokovic the next day due to his exertions.
One week later, however, the brilliance of Federer and Wawrinka resurfaced in the Davis Cup final. Playing in Lille against hosts France, Federer and Wawrinka each won a singles match and then paired in doubles to carry off Switzerland’s first title in the 103-year history of the event.
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As the years passed and the injuries mounted, it looked like Federer’s 2012 triumph at Wimbledon would be the last great victory of his career. The idea that the 35-year-old could win seven straight matches against the next generation of elite players seemed far-fetched at best. And then, Federer produced the Miracle of Melbourne.
After missing six months of tennis due to knee surgery, he began modestly enough, with victories over Jurgen Melzer and Noah Rubin, followed by a straight-sets effort against No. 10-ranked Tomas Berdych. He dropped a first-set tie-break to No. 5 seed Kei Nishikori in the fourth round but rallied to win in five sets, summoning some glorious memories of the past. Next were Mischa Zverev and No. 4 seed Stan Wawrinka – whom he edged in another barn-burning fifth set – leading to yet another final against his great rival from Spain.
Like so many of their previous matches, it eventually was distilled down into a single, conclusive set. Federer, down an early break, rallied to take it with a forehand winner that clipped the line. Nadal challenged the call but, after an awkward pause, it was upheld by replay.
“Against Rafa it’s always epic,” Federer said. “This one means a lot to me because he’s caused me problems over the years.”
The oldest major finalist in 43 years, Federer accepted the sterling trophy from Rod Laver, the Australian champion whose name is on the Melbourne stadium. It was Federer’s 18th major title; he would add two more, later that year at Wimbledon and at the 2018 Australian Open.
Honour In Defeat
One week after he thought his season was over, all packed for a Patagonia fishing vacation with family and friends, David Nalbandian suddenly found himself on a plane to Shanghai. Ranked No. 12 among ATP players, he got the call to compete in the Tennis Masters Cup when several qualifiers withdrew.
“I entered through the back door,” Nalbandian said later, “a lucky loser.” He would emerge, one week later, with one of the most scintillating victories in recent memory. Nalbandian, one of four Argentines in the year-end field, lost to Federer in three sets of round-robin play, as did Ivan Ljubicic and Guillermo Coria. Gaston Gaudio failed to win even a single game in the semi-final and Federer – winner of 11 titles in 2005 and loser of only three matches – was set to face Nalbandian, who defeated Nikolay Davydenko to reach the final.
There was Open Era history on the line for Federer, who was one victory from John McEnroe’s 82-3 record, set in 1984. The Swiss champion had won 35 consecutive matches and, astonishingly, 24 straight finals. Nalbandian had lost his four previous matches against Federer, and after dropping two tie-breaks – in the second, he failed to convert three set points and lost 13-11 – it appeared it would be five straight.
And then Nalbandian rallied to win the third and fourth sets, dropping only three games. The fifth and ultimate set, he said, was a “roller coaster". He actually led the fifth set 4-0, but Federer levelled it at 4-all and broke Nalbandian when he was serving for the match at 5-4. In the fifth-set tie-break, Nalbandian converted his fifth match point on a Federer miss in the net.
“I said to myself at the start of the fifth-set tie-break, ‘If there is a tie-break that I cannot lose in my career it is this one,’” Nalbandian said.
Federer himself was questionable to compete in Shanghai in 2005, having been on crutches just three weeks prior to the event with an ankle injury. But he recovered in time to produce several strong displays in Shanghai — none more memorable than the title match.
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Federer, the World No. 1, had already won seven majors by this time – but none of them came on clay, a surface seemingly created for the extraordinary skill set of the muscular Spaniard. Federer had been to the Rome final before, losing to Felix Mantilla three years earlier, and was destined to fall in two others, to Nadal in 2013 and, two years later, to Djokovic.
Still only 19, Nadal was the Internazionali BNL d’Italia defending champion and had amassed 52 consecutive victories on the clay, one behind the record set by Guillermo Vilas.
The final set was a spectacular microcosm of the match that ran five hours and five minutes. Nadal trailed 1-4 and, serving at 5-6, produced a double fault – the first of the match by either player – that led to two match points for Federer. In both cases, errant forehands allowed Nadal to escape. Leading the tie-break 5/3, another Federer failed forehand might have cost him the match, which Nadal wrapped up by winning the last four points.
Federer wound up winning more points (179-174), but the teenager had his fifth victory against the Swiss in six matches.
Bjorn Borg, true tennis royalty, surveyed warm-ups for the championship match at the All England Club from the front row of the Royal Box. Regardless of the result, his tennis legacy would be in play. Federer was seeking his sixth consecutive Wimbledon title, one more than the record he shared with Borg. Meanwhile, Nadal was trying to become the first man to accomplish the Roland Garros-Wimbledon double since Borg, 28 years before.
“I cannot sleep,” the silver-haired Swede had joked a few days earlier. “No,” he said softly, holding up an elegant hand. “Records are meant to be broken.”
Federer had beaten Nadal in two previous SW19 finals, but the Spaniard had gradually adapted to the slippery surface, moving closer to the baseline, punching up his serve and taking greater risks with his groundstrokes. He won the first two sets, but Federer came back to take back-to-back tie-breaks and level the match. The drama, already suffocating, was exacerbated by three rain delays, a quaint reminder that there was life before the roof came to Centre Court.
Nadal broke Federer’s serve at 7-all in the fifth when a forehand sailed long. Down 0/15, Nadal chose to serve and volley for the first time in the match. Two winning volleys and a framed Federer backhand brought a third match point, which Federer erased with a fearless backhand return. Nadal, who converted his fourth match point when Federer’s forehand found the net, finished the match with tears in his eyes.
The match, which ended in near-darkness, required four hours, 48 minutes — Wimbledon's longest final on record, going back to 1877.
“I was just happy to be there, to be part of that final,” Borg said afterward. “That’s the best tennis match I’ve ever seen in my life.”
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History, it is said, doesn’t repeat itself. But whoever said it first might want to reconsider that premise after this one. For the second consecutive year, Federer held two match points against Djokovic in the US Open semi-finals – and wound up losing.
This match represented a continuation of the charged-but-changing dynamic between the two champions. Federer had beaten Djokovic in the 2007 US Open final (in straight sets) and again two years later in the semi-finals. But in 2010, they were competing on a level playing field, trading blows with equal effectiveness. With Djokovic serving at 4-5 in the fifth set, Federer scored those two break points, doubling as match points, but they were erased with a pair of cool forehand winners. Djokovic broke Federer’s serve and served it out to advance to the final, where he lost to Nadal.
Their 2011 semi-final saw Federer win the first two, tight sets before Djokovic came back to force a deciding final frame. Federer raced out to a 5-3 lead and immediately pinned Djokovic down with two match points at 40/15. The Serbian's response? One of the boldest forehand winners in Grand Slam history. Djokovic won the last four games and this time defeated Nadal in the final for his third major title of the season.
“How can you play a shot like that on match point?” Federer asked later, referring to that fabulous forehand. “Maybe he’s been doing it for 20 years, so for him it was very normal. You’ve got to ask him.”
Djokovic’s answer: “Yeah, I tend to do that on match points. It kind of works.”
Here was one last, terrific opportunity to seize a 21st Grand Slam singles title and extend his all-time record. The fact that Federer was one month shy of his 38th birthday, that he was attempting to become the oldest man to win a major in the professional era, was almost beside the point.
The chance came in the fifth set on Centre Court, serving at 8-7, up 40-15 on Djokovic. The first match point passed quickly when Federer’s forehand was wide. The second was literally a passing shot, crosscourt, from Djokovic. And so, Djokovic re-established the equilibrium and, at 12-all, went on to win Wimbledon’s first-ever championship final-set tie-breaker.
“I don’t know what I feel right now,” Federer said afterward. “I just feel like it’s such an incredible opportunity missed, I can’t believe it.”
Ultimately, Federer won more points (218-204) and hit vastly more winners (94-54), but couldn’t close the deal against his younger rival. It was the fifth Wimbledon title for Djokovic and would set up a thrilling race with Nadal for the most men's Grand Slam singles titles.