Federer’s First of Five US Open Titles
Roger Federer is no doubt the King of the US Open. He will be seeking his sixth straight men’s singles title in 2009, equaling the effort by Bill Tilden, who won six straight titles from 1920-1925. The all-time tournament record for consecutive men’s singles titles came when Richard Sears won the first seven U.S. titles, but Sears only had to win one match – the challenge round – to win the last six of his titles.
Roger’s reign in Flushing began in 2004, highlighted by an incredible five-set win over Andre Agassi in the quarterfinals and a decisive “double bagel” over Lleyton Hewitt in the final. Swiss journalist and author Rene Stauffer summarizes Roger’s first US Open title in his book THE ROGER FEDERER STORY: QUEST FOR PERFECTION ($24.95, New Chapter Press, www.RogerFederer Book.com), excerpted below.
Federer had little trouble advancing into the quarterfinals, where he faced Agassi, now age 34. After a European summer highlighted by physical problems and unexpected defeats, Agassi found his groove on the American hard courts, defeating both Roddick and Hewitt to win the title in Cincinnati—his first title in over a year. Agassi’s confidence was high.
In one of the US Open’s celebrated night matches, Federer and Agassi battled on Wednesday evening, September 8, and Federer immediately found his rhythm. He was leading 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 when it began raining and play was postponed. The match resumed the following afternoon and the players were greeted with gale force winds—as part of the weather front that swept through New York as a leftover from Hurricane Frances that battered Florida earlier in the week. Federer described the wind swirls as being the worst conditions that he ever played under. “Just five years ago I would have gone nuts playing in such a wind,” he said.
The wind forced Federer to change tactics. He no longer tried to go for winners and display his usual aggressive style, but concentrated on getting the ball and his serves over the net and simply into play—which in the windy conditions was itself a challenge. “I played just like at practice and that was the right recipe,” he said. A 6-3, 2-6, 7-5, 3-6, 6-3 win over Agassi put him into the semifinals of the US Open for the first time, where he would face an old acquaintance, Tim Henman. The 30-year-old Brit won six of his eight career matches with his Swiss rival, but Federer was a different player than many of the previous matches, with more self-confidence and stamina. As in March in Indian Wells, Federer encountered little resistance with Henman, winning 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 to advance into the championship match at the US Open for the first time.
Awaiting him in the final was another of his past nemeses, Lleyton Hewitt, the 2001 US Open champion. The Australian skipped the Olympic Games, but won the two ATP tournaments played concurrently to the Olympics in Washington, D.C. and in Long Island. Entering his match with Federer, he won his last 16 matches and did not surrender a set in his six-match run to the final.
It only took 17 minutes for Federer to hand Hewitt his first lost set of the tournament, losing only five points in a near perfect execution of tennis. When Hewitt won his first game of the match after Federer led 6-0, 2-0, the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium gave him a standing ovation. Federer continued to be the much stronger player, until a lapse of concentration and a run of errors and missed serves allowed Hewitt to win four straight games after trailing 2-5 in the second set.
“If he had managed to win the second set, it would have turned out to be an entirely different match,” Federer said. “I forced myself to keep positive. I said to myself that I only got this break because I was playing against the wind and I was serving with old balls. When I changed sides, everything actually did go easier.”
Federer held serve at 5-6 to force the tiebreak and won that 7-3. The two-set lead broke Hewitt’s resistance and Federer plowed through the final set 6-0 to win his first US Open championship.
“First I was surprised that Lleyton was no longer getting to the ball,” Federer said of his moment of victory. “Then I was suddenly lying on my back, looking into the sky at the lights of the stadium. I thought, ‘That’s unbelievable.’ Once again I was close to tears.”
Roger Federer’s victory at the 2004 US Open provided new content for the record books of tennis. Statisticians and historians of the game quickly discovered that he was only the second man in the “Open Era” of professional tennis (since 1968) to win a Grand Slam final with two 6-0 sets. The other was the Argentinean Guillermo Vilas, who dominated American Brian Gottfried 6-0, 6-3, 6-0 at Roland Garros in 1977. The last time a player won a final at the U.S. Championships with two 6-0 sets came back in 1884 in only the fourth edition of the U.S. national championship and in the days of tennis infancy.
In the United States, 6-0 sets are referred to as “bagels” with a “double bagel” being considered the bitterest variety when a match is lost 6-0, 6-0. In German-speaking countries, these whitewashes are called a “bicycle.” Although, Lleyton Hewitt was able to force a second-set tie-break against Federer in the US Open final, he was not spared the shame of the “double bagel” or “the bicycle.” The Australian Associated Press (AAP) exaggerated that Hewitt’s loss was “the greatest humiliation in the history of Grand Slam finals.” One reporter in the post-match press conference even had the audacity to ask Hewitt if it was difficult to swallow a “double bagel.”
More importantly in historical significance was that Federer, with his victories at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, became only the fourth man in the Open Era of tennis to win at least three of the four Grand Slam titles in a calendar year. Mats Wilander from Sweden was the last man to manage such a feat in 1988, as did Rod Laver, who won all four Grand Slams in 1969, and Jimmy Connors, who won the Australian, Wimbledon and the US Open in 1974. Don Budge was the first player to win all four major titles in the same year—the Grand Slam—in 1938. The term “Grand Slam” was first coined when American tennis writer Allison Danzig suggested in 1938 that Budge scored a Grand Slam of victories—like a winning bridge player—at the four most prestigious championships of the year.
Laver, a left-hander given the nickname the “Rockhampton Rocket,” even managed to win the Grand Slam twice—once in 1962 as an amateur and again in 1969 as a professional. In Laver’s time, however, this accomplishment had a different value and was less significant than today as three of the four Grand Slam events were played on grass courts, unlike the four different surfaces of today’s game.
In women’s tennis, three players have won the Grand Slam—the American Maureen Connolly (1953), the Australian Margaret Smith Court (1970), as well as Steffi Graf (1988). The German, who married Andre Agassi after her tennis career, also won at the Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988 giving her the distinction of winning what is called the “Golden Slam.” Martina Hingis, like Federer, won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open in 1997, narrowly missing the Grand Slam, with her surprising loss to Iva Majoli in the French final preventing her from joining this elite club.
In New York, Federer once again proved his ability to amplify his performance in the final stages of the tournament. He became the first professional player to win all of his first four Grand Slam tournament finals. It was almost equally amazing that in this feat, he lost only one set in his eight matches in the semifinals and finals. In the meantime, Federer’s US Open final marked the 11th straight victory in a tournament final. For Federer, a tournament final proved to be his greatest motivation. His attitude was simple—what’s the use of all the effort and match victories if you ultimately lose in the final? Winners stay, losers go.
The coup at Flushing Meadows transformed him into a sports star on Broadway. The American media celebrated him lavishly and some journalists even asked the question at such a pre-mature stage if he would be the man who would break Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles.
Federer remained grounded and modest in the hour of his greatest achievement in the United States. “I honestly never expected to win the US Open,” he said. “Until a year ago, I always had problems in the United States. The Americans always play with more confidence in their home tournaments than anywhere else. Conditions are difficult with the high heat and humidity.”
But he admitted something else; “I had a strange feeling before the final because everybody was talking about how long it had been since anybody had won his first four Grand Slam finals. I knew that I only had this one chance to do this.” Some were already talking that Federer was in a position to achieve the Grand Slam, but he didn’t allow these musings of grandeur to mislead him. “I would be really happy if I were to win one of the four Grand Slams next year,” he said the day after his US Open triumph during an extended interview session with a select group of journalists. “I know that I have to work hard for each match and for each title. It’s crazy what’s happening to me now. It’s out of this world.”
Federer’s US Open title generously extended his points lead on the No. 1 ranking. His margin between him at No. 1 and Roddick, his next challenger at No. 2, was extended from 1390 points to 2990 points—the equivalent of three Grand Slam titles. It would be impossible for any player to overtake him before the end of the year, even if Federer lost every match for the rest of the year. In the last four years, the year-end Tennis Masters Cup was the final determining tournament to decide the year-end No. 1 player. However, 2004 was not a normal year and thanks to the US Open, the year-end No. 1 was already in the books.
The Monday after the US Open brought Federer to the realization that the clocks tick differently in the American media world. He was chauffeured in a stretch limousine from one television station to another—7:45 am at ESPN’s show “Cold Pizza,” then at 8:30 am to the “CBS Early Show” and then at 9:30 am at “Live with Regis and Kelly,” followed by a photo shoot in Times Square, and a meeting with a select group of print journalists at the Hard Rock Café. At 2:30 pm, he was a guest on John McEnroe’s television talk show, and finally he appeared on the “Charlie Rose Show.” He had to prove his dexterity at ping-pong at two of his television appearances. Many things are possible in the United States, but setting up a tennis court in a television studio is not one of them.