From the 2004 Wimbledon championships to the 2009 Wimbledon championships, three men did the unthinkable - they all managed to beat Roger Federer at his very best at the grand slam stage. To give you a sense of how dominant Roger Federer was during this period of time - he was in every single grand slam final, apart from the 2005 and 2008 Australian Open championships. Who were these men, and how were they able to pull of such a feat? It would perhaps be unsurprising to know that two of them were tennis legends in their own right, but why is the other one who cannot be deemed a legend (a tennis legend by conventional definition has to win at least 7 or 8 grand slam titles) even here? Read on to find out!
Point to note: Federer may have lost on quite some occasions during this period to a few other players outside of the grand slams, but those losses are immaterial to our discussion here, as Federer naturally does not put on his peak performance during those matches.
This would come as no surprise to most of us, especially for those who watched him trash Federer in their very first encounter with each other at the 2004 Miami Open, at the age of 17. Nadal's extreme top-spin game is naturally a major bane to the conservatively gripped Federer, and when coupled together with much more efficient movement than when he started to put on significantly more body mass from 2010 onwards, makes Nadal truly the kryptonite to the superman of tennis. Despite the 2006, 2007 and 2008 French Open final losses being painful enough, Nadal still has to hurt him in his very own (and which must have been seen as his own sacred ground too) turf - Wimbledon - in 2008.
Like our first choice, this one comes as no surprise at all, in retrospect, that is. It escapes the awareness of most people, that Djokovic only became a brand name come 2011, and that before that, he was one amongst a quite long list of players who although present occasional danger to the likes of Federer or Nadal, do not stand at chance at winning multiple grand slams. The years from 2008 to 2010 seemed to prove just such - Djokovic was making it to the grand slam semi-finals and even the final, but would not be able to seal the deal, and thus remain a one-slam wonder. So how did the then one-slam wonder beat Federer? This could be accredited to a bout of mononucleosis that Federer suffered throughout the first half of his 2008 season. It is perhaps not for no reason that Federer was nearly knocked out by Janko Tipsarevic in the third round of that tournament (he clawed to win the fifth set 10-8), a man against whom he has a 6-0 win-loss ratio in Federer's favour, and has never lost any set to him in those matches apart from the two at the 2008 Australian Open.
Now this choice may strike one as a surprise, and a major one. Perhaps the surprise could be eased when one brings to mind the fact that this man had won a grand slam at the age of 20 (the 2000 US Open against Pete Sampras). He did so with his incredible movement, consistently good ball placements and powerful groundstrokes. A repetition of such performance was conducted in a fashion much more spectacular in the Rod Laver Arena against Federer. Watching the match, it felt as if Safin was actually a Djokovic albeit one with much more powerful groundstrokes. In fact, there was this backhand passing shot by Safin in one of the highlights of the match so eerily similar to Djokovic's it will be for a very long time stuck to my mind. Sadly, Safin is prevented from the reaching the greatest of heights by his rather poor consistency in performance. But a shocker he is, in his moments of best.
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