To commemorate Roger Federer’s 40th birthday on August 8, we’re looking back at four matches that define the grit, craft and determination that has propelled him to 20 Grand Slam singles titles and 310 weeks atop the ATP rankings.

Up next: a battle with Juan Martin del Potro that helped clinch the Career Grand Slam at 2009’s Roland Garros.

Federer won the last two sets to escape Argentine rival Juan Martin del Potro in a semifinal epic.

Federer won the last two sets to escape Argentine rival Juan Martin del Potro in a semifinal epic.

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THE MOMENT: The spring of 2009 was both the best and worst of times for Roger Federer. Standing at 13 major titles, the Swiss was the undisputed best of his generation and was ostensibly one win from tying Pete Sampras’ Open Era record less than a decade after first conquering the American at the 2001 Wimbledon Championships.

But at 27—an age once considered past prime in tennis—Federer had won just one of the last five major titles as closest rival Rafael Nadal swept the first Channel Slam in nearly three decades and outlasted him on hard courts to win the Australian Open to start the new season.

The nadir came two months later in Miami when a frustrated Federer destroyed a racquet during a dramatic defeat to Novak Djokovic. With the tour turning to clay and all momentum favoring the field, the Maestro never looked more mortal.

A sudden change in altitude brought new confidence to an undeniably flagging Federer at the inaugural Mutua Madrid Open. Sweeping past a surging Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals, he snapped a five-match losing streak to beat Nadal in straight sets for his first title in seven months—ending his longest title drought since 2001.

WATCH: Federer made his 19th Roland Garros appearance in 2021, reaching the round of 16.

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A French Open title nonetheless appeared elusive as ever when Federer arrived in Paris, ranked behind Nadal for a third straight major tournament. Twice needing four sets to edge into the fourth round, more eyes were on home favorites Gaël Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga as fantasy contenders to the as-yet undefeated King of Clay.

If good luck is the result of hard work and opportunity, then Federer’s clay-court persistence was at last rewarded when the King shockingly lost his crown to Robin Söderling at the start of the second week. The Career Slam—and the opportunity to tie Sampras at 14 major titles—was suddenly possible, but no less arduous.

Rallying from a near-disaster against Tommy Haas, Federer defeated Monfils to reach a 20th straight major semifinal and find del Potro, who was waiting to play his first. Undefeated against the Argentine in five previous appearances, he had to contend with an entirely different forehand than the lefty spin that long plagued him on the terre battue.

Del Potro bludgeoned his way through the first set and though Federer leveled with an electrifying second-set tiebreak—one that left an enraptured crowd chanting “Allez!”—the No. 5 seed was soon back in front with another two breaks, overpowering the Swiss on set point.

I can’t remember a five-set match I’ve played that was so moving. They wanted me to do something magical… When I needed the support of the French crowd, they were here with me, supporting me. Roger Federer

Federer employed all his variety to unnerve del Potro early in the fourth set and win eight straight points en route to a fifth, and shook off losing a break advantage in the ensuing decider to secure the win on his second opportunity, 3-6, 7-6 (2), 2-6, 6-1, 6-4—blasting a forehand of his own to bring Court Philippe-Chatrier to its feet.

“I can’t remember a five-set match I’ve played that was so moving,” Federer said at the time. “They wanted me to do something magical… When I needed the support of the French crowd, they were here with me, supporting me.”

That weekend, Federer avenged Nadal with a win over Söderling and resumed rewriting the history books.

THE MEANING: With Sampras’ record tied, Federer came to Wimbledon eager to reclaim the title he’d so heartbreakingly lost the year prior. He dropped just one set to reach a seventh straight final at the All England Club and play old rival Andy Roddick.

As Sampras watched live on Centre Court, Federer played another epic and ultimately broke the on-fire American for a 16-14 final set and win what, at the time, seemed like an insurmountable 15th major title.

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Federer struck 16 major titles by the 2010 Australian Open, having won three of the previous four from 2009 Roland Garros.

Federer struck 16 major titles by the 2010 Australian Open, having won three of the previous four from 2009 Roland Garros.

Looking to go one better than Nadal in 2008 and continue his dominance in New York, Federer found himself on the losing end of a US Open final to del Potro, who found major glory after his Parisian disappointment. Though he began 2010 with a fourth Australian Open victory, the surge from Nadal and Djokovic that had already begun two years earlier would soon resume in earnest.

While they combined to win 20 of the next 28 major tournaments, Federer would only muster one major in six years.

Emerging in Melbourne for the 2017 Australian Open, the now-35-year-old had been off the court for over six months after undergoing knee surgery. No one could have expected the thunderous third act that was about to unfold…