The year Roger Federer was 'an easy draw' at Wimbledon

Roger Federer has not always carried an aura of near-invincibility, and 20 years ago he was considered first-round fodder by Jiri Novak.

Published : Jun 27, 2019 21:38 IST

"It looked like an easy draw, a good draw for me."

Jiri Novak was 24 years old, ranked 59th in the world, and had won one singles match on three previous visits to Wimbledon.

No wonder the Czech considered it a gift to be paired with a 17-year-old debutant in the first round of the 1999 Championships.

After all, who was this Roger Federer kid?

The reigning Wimbledon boys' champion, certainly, but nobody considers that a reliable marker of future greatness. Consider the names that directly preceded Federer on that roll of honour: Wesley Whitehouse, Vladimir Voltchkov, Olivier Mutis, Scott Humphries, Razvan Sabau and David Skoch.

Voltchkov was a one-hit wonder who would fumble his way through to the men's semi-finals in 2000, inspired by repeat viewings of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. The others: well, bless them for winning junior Wimbledon.

The odds favoured Federer plodding a familiar path to oblivion.

Narrator: He did not.

Twenty years later, Federer is Wimbledon's greatest men's champion, a polylingual fashion icon with homes dotted across the globe, destined for billionaire status. Perhaps there already.

Novak beat him 6-3, 3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 out on Court Six in their Wimbledon meeting. Flanked by wooden benches and narrow walkways, there could have only been a couple of hundred day-trippers at any one time watching Federer's men's singles initiation.

Novak told Omnisport: "It’s a good memory. I remember looking at the draw and thinking it was a perfect draw for me because he was in on a wild card, he was playing for the first time.

"I was not really a good player on grass but I won in five sets and after this match I began to think, ‘Oh Jesus, this kid is not bad’. But it looked like an easy draw, a good draw for me. I was really lucky to win it in the end.

"In that moment, I thought he was going to become a good player, but I didn’t know he’d become as good as he would in the future.

"I couldn’t say on the day I beat him at Wimbledon that he’d go on to become number one and win so many grand slam tournaments, and that he’d still be on the tour 20 years later. It’s unbelievable.

Federer during his match two of round robin play against Jiri Novak in the Tennis Masters Cup at the Shanghai, November, 2002.

"At the time, Pete Sampras was my idol and he won 14 grand slam tournaments and I thought nobody would ever beat that total.

"Another 20 years later and we’ve got three players who’ve done it: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. It’s amazing.

"When I beat Roger Federer for the first time, he hadn’t won his first ATP tournament. I had another eight chances to play Roger in my career and everything became different."

Novak had heard locker-room rumblings about Federer having a temper, being a hot-headed youth whose rackets would frequently bear the brunt of his frustration.

"Everyone said he would go wild and crazy but in that match at Wimbledon he wasn’t," Novak said.

"I’d met him already and he was by that stage a quiet person. He was a little bit wild but in a good way. He was competitive and he was joking but he was never breaking his racket or screaming."

Matches against Federer got tougher and tougher, Novak remembers.

Federer's debut was barely noticed at Wimbledon on June 22, 1999, partly because on the very same day his Swiss compatriot and women's number one Martina Hingis was trounced 6-2, 6-0 on Court One by the scarcely-known 16-year-old Australian Jelena Dokic. That was the headline-maker.

A Swiss man reached the fourth round in the same championships, as Lorenzo Manta enjoyed his deepest grand slam run. Manta now operates a family sandwich shop business in his home city of Winterthur.

Federer would not have to wait long for the spotlight to shine his way.

A first grand slam title arrived at Wimbledon in 2003, and one week later Federer found himself in another final, on home clay in Gstaad.

Awaiting him was one Jiri Novak.

They had played six times since that Wimbledon meeting, with the fast-developing Federer winning four of those but Novak taking his scalp in Paris and Monte Carlo.

Novak had the temerity to beat Federer again in front of a Swiss crowd. Just like four years earlier in London, it took him five sets.

"He was a much better player so I was favourite for the Wimbledon match but not for any of the others," Novak, now 44, said.

"In all, I beat him four times and lost five times. For me it’s perfect. For the first time when I beat him he was a nobody but later when I beat him he was number one in the world."

Federer will target a ninth Wimbledon title over the next fortnight.

Novak coaches nowadays at the prestigious Prostejov tennis academy in the Czech Republic.

He retired in 2007 having won seven singles titles and 18 in doubles, and reached a high of number five in the world.

Not that his pupils recall his trophy-winning days.

"Time is running fast. I’m coaching the juniors, under-18s, so I was finishing when those kids were three, four, five years old," he said.

"They don’t remember me but I can tell them that I played Roger at Wimbledon."

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