“Roger Federer’s best chance at a 21st Grand Slam will evaporate if Wimbledon is cancelled,” a headline in the Daily Mail read this past weekend. That’s probably true. By the time the summer of 2021 rolls around, Federer will be a month shy of his 40th birthday. Surely that will be a sign that the end is nigh, right?
As far as orders of importance go these days, the major-title plights of Federer and his fellow legend Serena Williams, who will miss out on perhaps her best chance to tie Margaret Court’s record total of 24 Slams, rank fairly low on the global list. But someday, hopefully, we’ll have a chance to care about frivolous things like GOAT races and major-title totals again. Missing this event would likely hurt Federer and Serena in those races more than anyone else.
With Federer in mind, I thought it would be interesting to return to happier times, at least for a few minutes, and rewatch his first Wimbledon win, and his first Grand Slam win, which came over Mark Philippoussis in the 2003 final. From an historical perspective, the match was also the last time that two men would primarily play serve-and-volley tennis in a Wimbledon final. Starting in 2004, Federer served and stayed back, and he has been a baseliner on grass ever since.
At the time, this final had a note of anti-climax to it. Leading up to Wimbledon that year, the talk surrounding the men’s event had centered around a potential showdown between the No. 4 seed, Federer, and his fellow young gun on the rise, Andy Roddick, who was seeded No. 5. Two weeks earlier, Federer had won the tune-up event in Halle, at the same time that Roddick was winning the tune-up at Queen’s. The dominant grass-courter of the previous decade, Pete Sampras, wasn’t in the draw, and would soon be retired. When the defending champion and top seed, Lleyton Hewitt, lost to Ivo Karlovic in the first round, the road was wide open for a Federer-Roddick semifinal.
Many of us believed that Roddick was Sampras’s heir apparent. After all, he was American. Could a guy from Switzerland really beat him on Centre Court? The answer, we quickly found out in their semifinal, was an authoritative yes. Federer raised his game to a place where Roddick couldn’t go, and basically kept it there for the rest of his career. I can remember an editor at Tennis Magazine who had gone to Wimbledon that year returning as a raving Federer fanatic. He wasn’t the only one. I’ve heard from a lot of people through the years that Federer’s win over Roddick ignited their love for the Swiss, and reignited their love for the sport.
I can also remember thinking that, because of the display he had put on in the semis, Federer might be set up for a letdown against Philippoussis. Once upon a time, the Australian had also been seen as an heir apparent. He had reached the US Open final in 1998, and the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 1998, 1999, and 2000. In 2000, he was up a set on Sampras when he injured himself and was forced to retire. Unseeded due to injuries in 2003, Philippoussis looked ready to finally make good on his bomb serve and his early promise.
Just as he had in the semis, though, Federer waved his magic wand and made his flame-throwing opponent disappear in three fairly routine sets. For years, we had been told that power tennis was the future, and there was nothing anybody could do to stop it. Then, suddenly, over the course of a weekend, Federer did.
Naturally, we didn’t know all of that then. I watched this match at my tennis club in Brooklyn, and few of the other members were particularly riveted by the matchup; Federer wasn’t a known quantity then. In the closing stages, I can remember thinking something like, “Huh, I guess Federer is going to be a Wimbledon champion.” Up until then, I had thought of him as a player who would hang around the Top 10 or Top 5, but I hadn’t contemplated him as a major winner, let alone a 20-major winner. After all, he was already almost 22 in 2003! That was ancient by the standards of the day.
In my defense, even Federer sounded legitimately stunned to be holding the winner’s trophy when it was over. For many, the most memorable part of this day was his stammering, tearful, semi-delirious winner’s speech afterward. Crying, for the most part, wasn’t a thing in sports at that time; now it’s pretty much standard. Federer’s words—about how many times he had pretended he had won Wimbledon as a kid, and how mind-blowing it was to actually be doing it—were relatable, and won him many more fans. Beneath Federer’s cool exterior, we found out, was a deep pool of emotion.
Let’s roll the videotape.
—The clip starts with an interesting shot of the two players waiting to go on court. Federer is relaxed enough to look at the camera and smile as the club’s designated bag carrier drops the players’ bags to the ground. Most players, as they’re about to walk out for their first Wimbledon final, or for any Grand Slam final—or virtually any match—put on a facade of total, stony concentration. Not Federer. Watching him happily chat away during pre-match interviews over the years, I’ve always been amazed at how easily he can shift in and out of game-face mode.
—Here we get to see Federer the serve-and-volleyer. He comes in behind his first serve for most of the match, but not his second. The tactic doesn’t work out so well on the first point, as Philippoussis belts a forehand pass for a winner. Federer’s service motion was a little simpler, a little more still in those days, especially when he’s tossing the ball.
—Do you like Mirka’s shades? She turned 25 a few months before this match. Nervous and hunched down low in the player box, she reminds me of…Awkwafina?
—This was the last hurrah for old-style grass-court tennis at Wimbledon. The tournament had installed new all-rye turf in 2001 that would eventually make it easier for baseliners to succeed there, but these two weren’t ready to make the change. Philippoussis grew during the net-rushing days, and Federer came in at the tail end of it. To them, the only way to win Wimbledon was to go to the net.
In truth, it was the serve alone that mattered most at Wimbledon, and matches were often decided by a couple of shanked returns that somehow landed dropped in for winners. You can see Federer hit a couple of them here—they qualify as highlights. In the old grass-court game, there was a fine line between the tense and the dull. Either way, there was something simple and pure about it.
—Philippousis hits a spectacular forehand that seems like it’s going to go for a winner. That is, until Federer easily gets there and blocks it back into the open court, and eventually closes the point with an inside-in forehand winner and a fist-pump. The mix of offense and defense he used in that point has defined men’s tennis ever since.
—Philippoussis shanks a forehand return to give Federer the first set. Mirka can’t hide her relief, while Federer responds with a narrow-eyed strut to the sideline. From there it’s full flight Fed to start the second set. He caresses an overhead for a winner, and follows it up with a backhand pass from his shoe tops. Soon he’s up two breaks and casually poking over drop volleys that die in the grass. Some things have never changed.
—The one element of his game that Federer would clearly improve is his forehand. The few rally forehands we see him hit here sit up in the middle of the court, in a way that they won’t in the future. With his move back to the baseline, he would become more reliant on his forehand as a point-changing weapon.
When Philippoussis hits his final backhand return into the net, Federer has Grand Slam title No. 1. He’s won 19 since, and seven at Wimbledon. Let’s hope he gets another shot there before he’s done.