Roger Federer’s 6-2, 5-7, 6-1 win over Juan Carlos Ferrero got me thinking about an earlier match between the two in which far more was at stake
2004 Federer vs. Ferrero in Melbourne
It is easy to forget how well Juan Carlos Ferrero played in 2003. At the end of the 2003 season, a split decision existed. Andy Roddick was number one in the computers and put together a huge run of North American events to get there. Roger Federer surged to number two after winning all five of his Masters Cup matches including straight set wins over Roddick and Juan Carlos Ferrero. The Spaniard ranked third to end 2003, but he won Roland Garros and was the runner-up at the US Open. In fact, Ferrero won the most Grand Slam matches (20 in total) in 2003. The Spaniard, unlike Federer, held the number one ranking for part of the year. A three horse race was in place to start 2004.
Andy Roddick entered the 2004 Australian Open as the top seed, but was beaten by a resurgent Marat Safin in the quarterfinal round. Roger Federer and Juan Carlos Ferrero met in the semifinal round with the number one ranking squarely on the line. If Ferrero reached his second consecutive hard court major final, he’d be viewed as taking the tour by the horns. Roger Federer winning would mean that his masterful season ending form had carried over into 2004.
Federer beat Ferrero relatively easily. Roger went on to defeat Marat Safin in the final round. Those two wins combined with Federer’s 2004 Australian Open wins over Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian confirmed that Roger was the best of his generation. He re-affirmed this by defeating Hewitt and Roddick at Wimbledon 2004. Ferrero on the other hand suffered from some serious illnesses and never returned to the heights he occupied from Roland Garros 2003 through Melbourne 2004.
Various Firewalls Failed to Stop the Fed
Still, the match between Roger and Juan Carlos at the 2004 Australian Open was Juan Carlos’ best chance to establish himself as a peer to Federer. Each man in that generation had a match or two that could have changed the nature of their one-sided relationship with Federer. Juan Carlos’ came in January 2004. Andy Roddick had a number of big matches versus Roger, but his 2004 Wimbledon final loss shifted that rivalry. Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt each made push backs against Roger that met with limited success. Safin played Federer tough at the 2004 Masters Cup and followed that up with a five set win over Roger en route to an Australian Open title in 2005. Hewitt reached back-to-back major finals between the 2004 US Open and 2005 Australian Open. Each of these push backs was thwarted during the 2005 grass court season. Federer won a tight three set final over Marat Safin at Halle. He then went on to defeat Hewitt in straight sets in the semifinal round of Wimbledon 2005.
Roger was simply better than his contemporaries, and he likely would have reigned for several years even with a few extra losses in big matches. However, Roddick, Hewitt, Safin or Ferrero may have been emboldened by one or two more wins in these pivotal matches. That may have helped them mentally snag one or two additional wins. Also, Roger’s confidence may not have grown quite so much, and he may have thrown in a few more losses prior to the final weekend of majors.
Post Script: A Challenge Did Arise
Throw in a straight set win over Andy Roddick in the 2005 Wimbledon final, and Federer had cleared out his generation. When the grass court season closed in 2005, Federer had won five major titles leaving Hewitt and Safin’s two majors in the rear view mirror. Of course, 2005 saw the emergence of someone who did truly push back against Roger’s reign. Rafael Nadal lost a five set final in Miami to Roger after squandering a two set lead. Nadal did not make the same mistakes in Paris, and a new rivalry was born at roughly the same time Roger was completing his conquest of his contemporaries. A great deal has happened between 2005 and 2012, but these two men are still making headlines and history.