The Ghosts of 2004: Federer-Roddick Preview

Wimbledon 2009
By Matthew Zemek, July 6th, 2009

Andy Roddick in Wimbledon 2009As Roger Federer and Andy Roddick meet once again at Wimbledon, two paths that meandered in such distinctly different directions have suddenly converged to create a rather remarkable backdrop to this year’s gentlemen’s singles final. When these familiar foes face each other on Sunday at Centre Court, they’ll find it impossible to ignore the match that shaped the prime years of their tennis-playing lives.

It’s true that Federer and Roddick played in the 2003 semifinals and the 2005 final at SW19, in two matches snatched by the Swiss in straight sets. Federer-Roddick used to be an annual event at Wimbledon before the Roger and Rafael Nadal Show came along in 2006. Yet, for all of their confrontations at the All-England Club, there’s zero question that a titanic tug-of-war in the 2004 Wimbledon final remains, even to this day, the most impactful match they shared on the same court.

Federer and Roddick have faced each other at every major tournament except the French Open, and in Roddick’s most recent slam final-at the 2006 U.S. Open-Federer was there to oppose his American rival. All those other meetings in other locales don’t carry much weight, however, when placed against the events of July 4, 2004, on the world’s most famous patch of grass.

Roger Federer action during Wimbledon 2009Five years ago, Federer and Roddick loomed large as the two best players in tennis. Federer-the defending champion at SW19-had also won that year’s Australian Open, while Roddick was less than a year removed from his first major title at the 2003 U.S. Open. At a time when the French Open belonged only to dirtballing specialists (Gaston Gaudio and Guillermo Coria were rarely if ever heard from after they contested the 2004 French championship, won by Gaudio in five sets), Federer and Roddick were the kings of the fast surfaces which comprised three of the four majors. Seeded first and second at Wimbledon, the Swiss and the American raced toward the final Sunday of The Championships from opposite halves of the draw. Federer, not quite 23, seemed destined to win several slams before his career was through, while Roddick, just short of his 22nd birthday, appeared similarly primed for more Grand Slam glory after his victory in New York the year before. The buildup was high, the stakes considerable, the pressure on each man immense. And that was just the prelude.

When mortal combat actually began on Centre Court, the second-seeded Roddick served from a tree and bludgeoned the ball with his forehand. The American played power tennis to perfection, shortening points and blasting away before Federer could feel his way into rallies and find rhythm as a result. Depriving Federer of the tennis equivalent of oxygen, Roddick made sure his opponent couldn’t breathe. As a result of his simple but smart game plan, the American won the first set and-after Federer battled back to narrowly win the second-took a one-break lead over the top-seeded Swiss in the third.

Then, however, the fates intervened.

Anyone who followed men’s tennis before Rafael Nadal’s rise to prominence knows how the 2004 Wimbledon final turned on a dime. Before the classic 2008 final (between Nadal and Federer) that was delayed at the outset and then twice interrupted by rain, there was another gentlemen’s championship match that fell victim to the weather. With Roddick up 4-2 in the third set, rain began to fall on the grounds of the All-England Club. Roddick’s momentum was halted, while Fed was able to think about his tactics after the resumption of play. Sure enough, the pride of Switzerland was able to break Roddick shortly after the two men emerged from the locker room. With the third set back on serve, “The Artful Roger” was able to get into-and win-a tiebreak that took a lot of the air out of Roddick’s sails. Only a short while later, the world No. 1 was putting the finishing touches on a 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (3), 6-4 victory.

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The pundits and writers who watched the match knew that Federer received a stroke of good fortune, but they also noted that the Swiss-who did not have a coach at that point in his career-was smart enough to erase his third-set deficit by making the right adjustments. A potent poignancy characterized the post-match scene: Federer cried the way he so often does in a time of triumph, while Roddick-shocked by a loss on a day when he played so well-was left to wonder why the heavens opened up precisely when he had the top-ranked player in tennis on the run. Much could not be understood about the twists and turns of the 2004 Wimbledon final itself, but the lasting significance of the match proved far more elusive. The mystery of this momentous matchup would not be appreciated for a few more years.

Perhaps the 2004 tussle re-entered the minds of both men when Federer crushed Roddick in the 2005 final. Hitting 51 winners while conceding just 12 unforced errors, Federer flashed his vaunted “full-flight” game to deny Roddick any chance of creating a competitive match. The nearly flawless display gave credence to tennis observers who felt that the 2004 result gave Federer a forward push, injecting the Swiss machine with an even fuller tank of confidence. Yet, there was still a sense that Roddick-denied by a great player at Wimbledon-would still have his day in the sun.

That’s when Mr. Nadal entered the fray.

Despite his comparative lack of experience on grass, Nadal cherished Wimbledon more than any other tournament. Accordingly, the Spaniard’s hunger to succeed made itself manifest in a very short period of time. His legendary desire catapulted the 20-year-old to the 2006 final at Centre Court for a date with Federer. A loss in that match did absolutely nothing to dim Rafa’s resolve, and so it was that Nadal would swing the stick against the Swiss in 2007 and, of course, in the unforgettable 2008 epic that electrified the sports world. The truth was as painful as it was shocking for Andy Roddick: Despite his losses to Federer at Wimbledon, the American appeared to have more chances for championship riches, only to then witness Nadal steal the spotlight and become an unskakable, unbreakable force at No. 2 in the ATP rankings.

Anyone in professional tennis will tell you that the landscape shifts very quickly; Roddick, through little fault of his own, went from being a regular Wimbledon runner-up to a Grand Slam quarterfinalist. It’s not that Roddick declined; the harsh reality of the men’s game, circa 2006, was that Roger and Rafa were crowding almost everyone else out of the picture. In 2007 and early 2008, Novak Djokovic hit the big-time with an appearance in the U.S. Open final and the ’08 title in Australia. In the latter half of 2008, Andy Murray began to make his mark on tour with a Masters title in Cincinnati and a run to the U.S. Open final. Roddick, still trying to find his best tennis, possessed a work ethic worthy of his craft. The American, no longer the 21-year-old who fell to Federer in 2004, entered 2009 as a 26-year-old swimming in a sea of more talented sharks. In a few short years, the infusion of a few young studs-led by Nadal and then followed by the Djoker and Murray-severely reduced Roddick’s window of opportunity.

As for Federer? The Swiss-by the end of 2006-had become more than just “another great player.” With his second three-slam season but his first year of reaching all four major finals (with a 27-1 record, one win short of a calendar Grand Slam, which Rod Laver pulled off in both 1962 and ’69), the Swiss superstar entered especially elevated places in the tennis pantheon. If there was any doubt about the 2004 Wimbledon final’s effect on Fed’s career in 2005, the 2006 surge laid such questions to rest: Yes, that rain-aided escape against Andy Roddick really did open the floodgates to a career considered by many to be the greatest in the history of men’s tennis.

How fitting and fascinating it is, then, that five years after the match that did so much to alter the course of their journeys, Roger Federer and Andy Roddick meet again… at Wimbledon… in the final… with Nadal recuperating, Djokovic drifting, and Murray not yet ready to assume a mantel of Grand Slam greatness.

It’s time to party like it’s 2004, and if the underdog from the United States can make some magic against the 14-time Grand Slam champion, it will rank as one of the great comeback stories in the history of sports. Andy Roddick has had a good life in all respects, but if he can fell Roger Federer this one time, his current 2-18 record against the Swiss will cease to mean very much. Far more importantly, Roddick’s life on the court, between the painted white lines, will finally attain the completeness it’s been lacking for so many years… all because of that afternoon on July 4, 2004.

Time does stand still at Wimbledon, allowing the ghosts of the past to find cushy seats at Centre Court when champions are made and re-made. Sunday, those shadowy figures will loom over Andy Roddick’s shoulder. If the American can play the match of his life, he’ll never again be haunted by that day five years ago, when two careers began to acquire considerably divergent dimensions.


1 Comment »

  • just stumbled across this article… BRAVO! you are one of the few who are aware of the major turning point that rain delay had on both fed’s and rod’s career paths. If Roddick would have won that match, Roddick would have stopped his pattern of no confidence play poor, change coach do well, results drag lose confident, etc. Gilbert would still be his coach and he would have several slams by now.

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