Most of us have only known Federer for his successes, or rather his years of dominance and success (which by our definition is a period of achieved establishment for Federer and includes the dismal years of 2010, 2011 and 2013). This man after all has of now 19 grand slams to his name and it has been quite a rarity for a year to pass by without him securing one grand slam within that year. What most of us fail to know, is that Federer was a relative late starter onto the path of dominance. For instance, if you compare him against his fellow contenders for the greatest player of all time position, he won his grand slam at the mature age of 21, whereas Djokovic and Nadal won theirs at the ages of 20 and 19 respectively. What we are exploring today is an aspect of such a late start, which is the interesting fact that he was on a losing streak in the very earliest years of his career, against two players famous for being trashed by him repeatedly as the earlier years were gotten over with. Federer is what you can say, one of the greatest ugly ducklings in tennis history
Federer - Nalbandian
David Nalbandian has been the biggest of headaches for a young Roger Federer. For their first five encounters spanning between that at the 2002 Monte Carlo Masters and the 2003 US Open quarter-final encounter, Federer has lost every single time. The striking ability and efficient movement of Nalbandian equipped him at the time with offensive and defensive capabilities which the stylish-but-not-too-substantial Federer cannot yet match up too. Adding to this problem is the fact that Nalbandian has a strong weapon (his deadly strike-precise backhand whereas Federer does not (his whip forehand has not come onto the scene yet). The turning point was late 2003 (in fact that same turning point applies to the other rivalries mentioned in this blog article), from which he emerged victorious almost all his encounters with the Argentinian. The head-to-head count between the two for the first five matches was 5-0 in Nalbandian's favour, the current one is 11-8 in Federer's favour. Not bad, when considering how Nalbandian won only 3 more matches after that very early streak. Also, it should be noted that Nalbandian reached the Wimbledon final one year younger than Federer, despite being one year younger. So much for a slow start for Federer!
Federer - Hewitt
Hewitt is known to most of us who have been following the game since for 10 years or so, as that person from Australia who although is very recognisable for some unknown reason, is typically unseeded in grand slam tournaments and always loses to Roger Federer whenever matched up against him. Those who follow the game assiduously much longer (think since the year 2001 or something) would know the reason why Hewitt is quite recognisable despite his unrecognisable performance in the recent years. He was like Nalbandian, one of the ones giving Federer major headaches in the earliest years of his career, and a man of great then-Federer-unsurpassable achievements in his own right. The same age as Federer, Hewitt won the 2001 US Open at the age of 20 and the 2002 Wimbledon championships at the age of 21. Federer himself acknowledges that Hewitt was a major headache with this quote:
Hewitt made me a better player - Roger Federer
Yes, it is not explicitly stated here that Federer was seeing Hewitt as a headache back then, but it is almost universally known amongst people who have engaged in any serious competition that your enemies make you better. For five long years spanning from 1999 to 2003, the Swiss and Aussie met a total of 9 times with Hewitt winning 7 of those encounters. The problem Federer had against Hewitt was very much the same as that which he had against Nalbandian. Hewitt was the defensive player par excellence during that time. His light quick footwork makes it hard for anyone to hit winners off him. The lack of a solid matured offensive weapon on Federer' side, and the lack of a matchable defensive ability, meant that each encounter with the Aussie was an uphill battle for the Swiss. All that changed from late 2003 onwards, when Federer won all but two encounters between them, bringing their head-to-head count from what was then 7-2 in favour of Hewitt to what is now 18-9 in favour of Federer.
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