Roger Federer, 34, has won only two Grand Slams this decade. He won the 2010 Australian Open, the first of the decade, by defeating an upcoming Andy Murray in the final. He then won Wimbledon 2012 by defeating Murray (again) in four tight sets.
But on Friday, at Melbourne for the Australian Open 2015, Federer reached an insurmountable landmark – one of the many that he seems to keep achieving these days. He defeated Grigor ‘Baby Fed’ Dimitrov in the third round, winning his 300th Grand Slam match of his career. To put things into perspective, the second best male player on this list is Jimmy Connors, who played till he was 40, winning 233 matches. Andre Agassi and Ivan Lendl played on for a while too, winning 224 and 222 respectively. Only Novak Djokovic – currently the best player on the planet – on 209 matches, stands a chance of coming close to this number. In tennis history, Federer stands behind only Martina Navratilova, who won 306 singles Grand Slam matches over her long career. Chris Evert finished on 299.
This is an ode to the Swiss legend’s longevity. He has enjoyed a regeneration of sorts over the last two years, and has reached three Grand Slam Finals, losing to Djokovic in each of them. He was No. 2 in the world for most of 2015, and is currently no. 3, in stark contrast to long-time rival Rafael Nadal, who will fall below his No. 5 ranking after losing in the first round to fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco.
The master has seen his fair share of timeless matches over his career, more so in the best-of-5 format. Here are three of his classics:
Wimbledon 2001, Quarter-finals
19-year old Federer, with streaked hair and a wild ponytail, gave the then-greatest grass-court player of all time a schooling in passing shots, baseline tennis as well as volleying. The match lasted five beautiful sets, and the crowd truly believed they had witnessed a passing of the baton. They were right, in a way. Had the heir apparent finally arrived? Was anyone going to take ahead the ‘greatest’ legacy? Pete Sampras was almost 30, and won only one more Slam after his career went into terminal decline with this loss to Federer. But he also hailed the Swiss boy as one to look out for – and must have felt tempted to eat his words when Federer lost to Tim Henman in the semis and the first round to Mario Ancic next year. Two years after the win over Sampras, 21-year old Federer returned to SW19 and destroyed everyone in his path to win his first ever Grand Slam. It was 2003. Between 2003 and 2010, he won 14 more Slams. It all began with Sampras.
Australian Open 2005, Semi-finals
Only Marat Safin could beat anyone on his day, they had said. He had done so in 2000, beating heavy favorite Sampras at the US Open. But he had refused to win any more Majors till this fortnight in 2005. Federer was already on a streak, and was virtually unbeatable through 2004. Then, in the semis, he came across an inspired Safin – who refused to yield an inch, who hit cleanly and didn’t break too many rackets, and the Safin that had met Sampras years ago to shock the world. Over five sets, Federer tried to slice his way out of his backhand returns, but Safin always had an answer. Eventually, Safin came through in five, defeating the King at his pomp, and going on to defeat Lleyton Hewitt, the home favorite, in the 2005 final to win his second (and last) Grand Slam major. Over the next seven years, Federer exacted revenge in almost every Slam on every court, defeating Safin repeatedly. But it wasn’t the same Russian those days. The 2005 guy bore some resemblance to the guy who won the 2014 US Open on a hot streak – a one-hit wonder of sorts, Marin Cilic.
Wimbledon 2008, Final
Quite simply the greatest Men’s Singles match of all time. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – who was then the King Of Clay edging closer and closer to a victory on grass each year – raised the standards of tennis to stratospheric heights. Other players must have watched and felt diminished, because the two produced a display that transcended sport. Nadal took the first two sets 6-4, before Federer stormed back in two tie-breaks to take it to the fifth. Who can forget his on-the-run backhand passing shot on match-point in the fourth set tiebreak? Nadal couldn’t quite believe it himself. But the Spaniard composed himself in the final set. He won it 9-7 in darkness – not fading light – but utter darkness, when it looked like the court was only lit with camera flashes. He wasn’t to be denied after a heartbreaking fifth set loss in the 2007 final, when he was still improving on other surfaces. Finally, he had conquered the one surface nobody thought he would. And he did it against the greatest grass-court player of all time – who had succeeded Sampras one fine day seven years ago on the same court. Was this another passing of the baton? Surely, it was too early to tell. Federer won it back in 2009 when Nadal was injured, as well as the Career Slam by winning the French Open, thereby sealing his legacy and proving that he was never going to be done.