This year marks the 50th anniversary of TENNIS Magazine's founding in 1965. To commemorate the occasion, we'll look back each Thursday at one of the 50 moments that have defined the last half-century in our sport.

When Pete Sampras won his 14th and final major title at the 2002 U.S. Open, and then announced his retirement from the sport in August 2003 at age 32, an era in men’s tennis had obviously come to an end. What was less obvious, to all but the most prescient prognosticators, was that a new one had already begun the previous month.

That July, Roger Federer had won his first Grand Slam title, at Wimbledon. While he was only 21, his breakthrough still felt like a long time coming to many tennis observers. Two years earlier, Federer had declared himself as a possible successor to Sampras when he stunned the seven-time Wimbledon champion in a five-set, fourth-round clash for the ages, and of the ages, on Centre Court.

On that day in 2001, Federer, a former world No. 1 junior with a smooth all-court game and a throwback one-handed backhand, had looked the part of a future champion. But he hadn’t looked that way often in the two years since. In 2002, Federer lost in the first round at Wimbledon, and in ’03 he came to the All England Club after his second-straight opening-round defeat at the French Open. He still hadn’t been past the quarterfinals at any major. Was his win over Sampras a fluke? Was the Swiss a big-match flake? Federer himself said he had no explanation for his series of dismally early Grand Slam defeats.

The turnaround would come not at Wimbledon itself, but at one of the grass-court tune-up events, in Halle, Germany, where Federer found his form and won the title. Still, the win wasn’t enough to make him the favorite at the Big W among the game’s cognoscenti. That honor went to another up-and-comer, 20-year-old Andy Roddick.


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The American, it so happened, had also turned his game around that spring. After the French Open, Roddick hired Andre Agassi’s former coach, Brad Gilbert, and their new partnership had given Roddick’s game an immediate jolt. While Federer was winning in distant Halle, Roddick was winning the more high-profile tune-up at Queen’s Club, and recording his first win over Agassi in the process, right under the collective nose of the excitable British press. To them, Roddick and his supersonic serve, rather than Federer and his subtle, old-fashioned variations, looked to be the future of the men’s game. After all, the best male players had been coming from the United States for decades; as the 2003 tournament started, 15 of the previous 30 Wimbledon men’s champions had been Americans. As far as the ATP went, Switzerland was barely on the map.

The chances of a Wimbledon breakthrough for Federer and Roddick, who were seeded fourth and fifth, respectively, looked even better after opening day, when Lleyton Hewitt became the first defending men’s Wimbledon champion to lose in the first round by going out to Ivo Karlovic. With Hewitt out of the top half of the draw, Federer and Roddick advanced through the first week on their way to a semifinal collision.

Federer would lose just one set over the course of the fortnight, but his biggest scare came in the early stages of his fourth-round win over Feliciano Lopez on the old Court 2, the Graveyard of Champions. There, in the first set, Federer felt a sudden pain in his upper back (it was a different injury from the lower-back problems that plagued him later in his career).

“I remember it vividly,” John McEnroe would tell the Daily Telegraph 10 years later. “He was struggling with a back problem. It looked like there was a chance he wasn’t going to finish. He had that look in his eye. And then somehow he found the wherewithal to dig a little deeper. And suddenly the guy goes on and wins the thing and he’s like a different player.”


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A different player indeed. Two rounds later, in the much-awaited semifinal against Roddick, Federer showed what that new player could do. In a 7-6 (6), 6-3, 6-3 win, he put on a show that ranked among the most stylishly dominant in the long history of Centre Court. With 17 aces, Federer more than held his own with Roddick’s serve, and when the rallies began, he played circles around him. A shoe-top backhand drive for a winner brought gasps from the audience and a wry smile from Roddick.

“I got my butt kicked,” Roddick said afterward. If he had known how many more times it would happen over the next decade, Roddick might not have been smiling. Federer would win 21 of their 24 meetings, and go 3-0 against him in Wimbledon finals.

“It was the match,” wrote Federer biographer Chris Bowers of that 2003 semifinal, “at which he announced to the tennis world that if he was on his game, it was virtually impossible for anyone else to beat him.”

That included Federer’s opponent in the final, Mark Philippoussis. The big Aussie, nicknamed Scud for his missile serve, had been a threat to win Wimbledon for years, and in 2003 he had upset the No. 2 seed, Agassi. But his best chance came a match too late, as he met the new Federer, the great Federer, the man who would be known as THE Federer. That Federer dismantled the Philippoussis with the same varied arsenal that he had used to carve up Roddick. By handily beating the game’s two biggest servers back to back on grass, Federer showed that, contrary to the consensus at the time, the future of the sport would not necessarily be all about power.


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The future, we’ve found out in the 12 years since, would be a golden one, for Federer and fans of men’s tennis alike. The champion quickly turned himself into an exemplary ambassador for the sport; it’s not a coincidence that the champions who followed him, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, have done the same.

But it wasn’t just the way Federer won Wimbledon that endeared him to spectators, it was the way he reacted. After receiving the trophy, the scruffy, pony-tailed Swiss told the crowd about all the times he had dreamed about winning it on this court. “And now I have it!” he cried as his voice cracked. Federer, as he said through his tears on Centre Court, was here, and tennis was better for it.