by David Cox Twelve years ago, a teenage Roger Federer arrived in Sydney for his first Olympic Games. But was this was not Federer as we know him now. Back then he was single, pony-tailed and most strikingly of all, anonymous.
Hard to imagine given the hordes that awaited him for yesterday’s press conference at the cavernous London 2012 media centre. Novak Djokovic must have felt cheated.
His 2011 season may have been one of the finest of all time but if he thought he’d gained a smidgeon of Federer’s popularity, well if the media attention is anything to go by, think again Novak.
The Aussie Open champ merely drew 50 cynical tennis writers. And not one of them declared themselves a lifelong fan. Federer’s appeal transcends his own sport, so much so that virtually anyone with an accreditation was hell-bent on getting the chance to pop a question at the Swiss.
Federer looked slightly bemused to find himself facing around 700 simpering hacks from all corners of the globe, each eager to declare their adoration for the great champion. Virtually every question began with ‘Roger, I’ve always been a massive fan….” And therein lies the problem for Federer at the Games these days.
Literally everyone wants a piece of him. So much so that the Swiss has to go into hiding during the fortnight in order to focus on his event. Most Olympians are simply coveted by the general public. But Federer finds himself an icon among his fellow athletes, unable to take a stroll through the Olympic village without having to satisfy a flurry of autograph requests.
“Every time I go to eat everyone taps on your shoulder. I don’t mind it but I wish it was different one day of the week,” he sighed. Federer’s Olympic experiences have spanned his entire career so it seems appropriate to take a look back at some of his most defining matches at the Games over the past 12 years.
Sydney 2000, Bronze Medal Playoff: vs Arnaud Di Pasquale (Fra) Federer has since described the Sydney Olympics as a magical experience – a fortnight where he first showed his ability to contend at a major event and the scene for a fairytale romance with future wife Miroslava Vavrinec, herself a competitor in the women’s singles.
But there was another side to Federer we all witnessed for the first time in Sydney – his tendency to well up! It’s easy to forget that the teenager left Australia devastated and choking back the tears after missing out on bronze in an epic tussle with the wily Di Pasquale.
Olympic tennis has blossomed in importance since the Sydney Games, back then the top stars still didn’t regard it as an event to peak for. Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras didn’t take part while Marat Safin and Tim Henman made early exits.
The young Federer took full advantage, cutting swathes through the draw to reach the semi-finals where he faced another rising talent, Germany’s Tommy Haas. In the years to come, Federer would make mincemeat of Haas in the major championships but now, burdened by his own expectations, he was too cautious and lost 6-3, 6-2.
This still left him a chance to win bronze against the journeyman Di Pasquale but once again, it was heartbreak for the Swiss. “I should never have lost,” Federer said glumly. “I really wanted to be standing on the podium.
Now I have nothing to take home except my pride.” Athens 2004, Second Round: vs Tomas Berdych (Cze) By the time of the 2004 Olympics, Federer was already earmarked as a man with the potential to become the greatest of all time.
With three Grand Slams already in the bag, he arrived in Athens as overwhelming favourite for gold but this itself brought new challenges. Unwittingly, Federer again opted to stay in the Olympic village but this time he found himself swamped by admirers at every turn.
“It was quite difficult in Athens,” Federer recalls ruefully. “Taking the bus and not being in control of my own schedule, and many people recognizing me in the village. It was definitely not as enjoyable as Sydney, which I loved.” The Olympics has been the only arena in sport where even at his peak, Federer has buckled under expectation time and time again.
Portrayed everywhere as a cast-iron certainty for gold in Greece, the Swiss crashed and burnt in the second round against a little known Czech teen by the name of Tomas Berdych. Built like a brick outhouse at 6’5, Berdych came out swinging from the hip and a nervous Federer missed multiple chances to close out the match, falling 4-6, 7-5, 7-5.
Beijing 2008, Quarter-Finals: vs James Blake (USA) Athens was meant to be his coronation as Olympic champion but after that stunning anti-climax, Federer had four years to lick his wounds, accumulate more major titles and witness the emergence of new rivals.
By the time Beijing rolled along, the Swiss had lost almost everything to a new king of tennis. Rafael Nadal was at his peak, Federer was struggling with his game and Novak Djokovic was developing into a serious contender on all surfaces.
Normally such a zen-like figure during major events, Federer was a ball of angst in Beijing, consumed by his lifelong desire for an Olympic medal. He didn’t look convincing in the early rounds but it was still a big shock when James Blake took advantage of an error-strewn display to stun the Swiss for the first time in eight matches.
Beijing 2008: Doubles Semi-finals: vs Bryan/Bryan (USA) However in a matter of days, Federer’s despair turned to joy as he claimed gold with Stanislas Wawrinka in the doubles.
2008 was the year where Wawrinka’s flamboyant talent first started to blossom in the big events and he played a huge role in revitalizing his dejected partner particularly in a tense semi-final win over the favourites, the Bryan brothers.
They still had it all to do in the final against the experienced pair of Thomas Johansson and Simon Aspelin and the nerves were certainly jangling when the Swedes pushed the match into a fourth set. But with Wawrinka once again taking a lead role, Federer finally tasted Olympic glory and the pure, unrestrained delight on his face symbolized how far Olympic Tennis has come since it was introduced back in 1988.
Can they repeat the feat in London? There’s a number of very dangerous pairings out there with virtually all the top players playing the doubles which could set up some fascinating match-ups even in the early rounds.
"Winning the Olympic gold in Beijing with Stan was one of the most incredible feelings I have ever had on a tennis court, so hopefully we can do well again,” Federer said. “We haven't played that much doubles as of late, so for us we need to focus on the early rounds.
Thank God we're seeded – that’s definitely helped us out a little bit in the draw!"