Is Roger Federer “The Savior of Shanghai?”
Rene Stauffer, the author of the Federer book ROGER FEDERER: QUEST FOR PERFECTION ($19.95, New Chapter Press, www.RogerFedererBook.com) labeled him that from his appearance at the 2005 Tennis Masters Cup, held at the same venue – Qi Zhong Stadium – where this week’s Shanghai Rolex Masters is taking place.
The chapter of Stauffer’s book, called “The Savior of Shanghai” is excerpted below.
With the Grand Slam season of 2005 behind him, Roger Federer now focused on achieving his goals for the remainder of the calendar year. He wanted to play Davis Cup for Switzerland and help his homeland stay in the elite 16-team Davis Cup World Group and also protect his No. 1 ranking. He also wanted to defend his title in Bangkok, finally win the title in his hometown of Basel and, for the third year in a row, end the year with a victory at the Tennis Masters Cup. While he was at it, why not win titles in Madrid or in Paris at the Bercy tournament for the first time?
Federer’s plan got off to a good start, beginning with the Davis Cup. He rejoined the Swiss team for its Play-off Round match against Great Britain in Geneva. Federer easily defeated Alan Mackin in the opening singles match, and after he and Yves Allegro defeated Andy Murray and Greg Rusedski in four sets in the doubles, Switzerland clinched the victory that allowed the nation to remain in the Davis Cup World Group for a 12th straight year.
Federer encountered Murray, the talented Scottish teenager, one week later in the singles final in Bangkok, when he won his 24th straight match in a singles final. The win in Bangkok clinched the year-end No. 1 for Federer, giving him the distinction of being ranked No. 1 in the world for every week of the 2005 season—a feat only achieved by four other players (Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras and Lleyton Hewitt.) As a reward, he and girlfriend Mirka Vavrinec treated themselves to a few days of vacation in Bangkok where they toured temples and Buddha statues and enjoyed the Thai cuisine. If not for Federer, Rafael Nadal was the clear cut No. 1 player for the 2005 season. The Spanish teenager won an astounding 11 tournaments, including the French Open and the Tennis Masters Series events in Monte Carlo, Rome, Montreal and Madrid. Nadal’s point total for the season ranked higher than four of the last five year-end No. 1 ranked players—Gustavo Kuerten (2000), Lleyton Hewitt (2001, 2002) and Andy Roddick (2003). In the era of Federer, this was only good enough for second place.
In October 11, Federer was in Allschwil, Switzerland training with countryman Michael Lammer, when he was once again struck by the “Curse of Basel.” At the same facility where he suffered a muscle tear the previous year, Federer injured his right ankle. He felt a searing pain and fell to the court and could not get back up. “At first I thought I had broken something,” he explained. The diagnosis was not that bad, but it was bad enough. Federer tore ligaments in his ankle and while surgery was not required, it forced him to withdraw from the events in Madrid, Basel and Paris. It was debatable if there was enough time for him to recover to play in the year-end Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai in a month’s time.
Federer’s foot was in a cast and he was on crutches for two weeks. He did everything he could to accelerate the therapy to enable him to play in Shanghai. He underwent ultrasound, lymph drainage, massages, elevated the legs, special exercises—everything. To his benefit, he was not the only top player who was injured as the top 10 rankings at the time read more like a list of casualties. Three former Grand Slam tournament champions withdrew from Shanghai—Marat Safin was out with a bad left knee and Andy Roddick withdrew with a bad back. Lleyton Hewitt chose not to compete in Shanghai so he could spend time with his new wife, Bec Cartwright, who was expecting the couple’s first child.
A fourth former Grand Slam tournament winner, Andre Agassi, arrived in China still gimpy after injuring ligaments in his left ankle around the same time as Federer’s injury. After losing in his first round-robin match to Nikolay Davydenko 6-4, 6-2, Agassi also withdrew from the event. Since he won the tournament in Madrid in October, Nadal was troubled with a left-foot injury that caused him to withdraw from the events in Basel and Paris. Although he was in China with the expectation of competing, he also withdrew from the tournament just before his first scheduled match. Within a matter of hours, the tournament lost two of its most popular draws—Agassi and Nadal—and Federer’s start was still doubtful as well. The two-time defending champion arrived in Shanghai early to prepare, but he still didn’t know until two days before the event began whether he would compete at all.
The typhoon-proof stadium in Shanghai was nearly sold out—but for the ambitious Chinese organizers—the situation was far worse than a typhoon. After a highly successful staging of the 2002 Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai, Chinese officials were able to lure the event back to their country for three years starting in 2005. During the two-year stint of the tournament in Houston, the Chinese built the magnificent Qi Zhong Stadium that seats 15,000 spectators in the Minhang district in southwestern Shanghai. The facility features a retractable roof that is shaped like a blooming magnolia—the city’s emblem. It is an eight-ton structure with eight retractable pieces that open and close. Since eight is Federer’s favorite number—because his birthday is on the eighth day of the eighth month—it made for a special connection between him and the tournament. Shanghai was also special for Federer since it was the site of his Tennis Masters Cup debut in 2002—and the memories were still fond. He even made an extra trip to take part of the official opening in the stadium in early October.
Federer’s injury was definitely the most serious of his career to date. While he was healthy enough to play in the tournament, his expectations were low. He did not properly prepare for the event and did not rule out the possibility of losing all three of his round-robin matches. In his opening match, Federer surprised himself when he was able to defeat David Nalbandian 6-3, 2-6, 6-4. He described the victory as one of the finest wins of his career, which gave some indication how ill-prepared for the tournament he actually felt.
Federer’s next match with Ivan Ljubicic became a high-point of the tournament. Ljubicic was regarded as a threat to win the title after posting the best indoor record of any player during the year. After Federer gave fans—and organizers—a scare when he called for a trainer to treat him on court before the third set, he saved three match points before prevailing in a 7-4 final-set tie-break. The win clinched Federer’s spot in the semifinals as the winner of his group.
In the semifinals, Federer registered an incredible 6-0, 6-0 thrashing of Gaston Gaudio of Argentina that not only moved him into the Tennis Masters Cup final for a third straight year, but gave him an 81-3 record for the year. He was within one match victory of tying John McEnroe’s record for the best won-loss record in the history of men’s tennis. In 1984, McEnroe won both the US Open and Wimbledon and achieved a record of 82-3. Nalbandian, whom Federer defeated in his opening round-robin match, was the only barrier that stood in his way of tying this important record. However, unlike round-robin play, the final was a best-of-five set affair, making the achievement that much more difficult for the out-of-match-practice Federer. Tie-breaks decided the first two sets, with Federer winning a first-set tie-break 7-4 and a second-set tie-break 13-11. With two hours of arduous tennis needed to take the two sets-to-love lead, Federer began to look weary in the early stages of the third set. Nalbandian took advantage and crawled back into the match. During a stretch in the fourth and fifth sets, Federer lost 10 straight games to trail 0-4 in the fifth set. At 0-30 in the fifth game of the final set, Federer, perhaps motivated by chants of “Roger! Roger!” as well as by his own will and pride, began to rally back into the match. Forty-five minutes later, he was just two points from victory serving for the match at 6-5, 30-0. Nalbandian, however, turned the tide again. Federer would later say, “I wasn’t playing to win any longer but just to make it as hard as possible for him.”
After breaking Federer back to force the final-set tie-break, Nalbandian rallied to win the match 6-7 (4), 6-7(11), 6-2, 6-1, 7-6 (3). Federer watched Nalbandian sink to the ground after the greatest victory of his career and as the first Argentinean Masters champion in 31 years. “I came closer to winning the tournament than I had thought,” said Federer. “Under these circumstances, this was one of the best performances of my career. This tournament was probably the most emotional one for me this year.”
Whether satisfied with his effort or not, the loss, nonetheless, meant the end of several of Federer’s streaks. It was his first defeat since the semifinals of the French Open in early June—a streak of 35 matches and the fifth-longest match winning streak in ATP history. (Nalbandian’s countryman Guillermo Vilas is the record-holder with 46 straight victories). The loss also marked his first defeat in a tournament final since July of 2003—a streak of 24 straight final-round matches. Although he only lost four matches, he ranked his 2005 season worse than 2004, since two of his four defeats happened at Grand Slam tournaments. “But this season was unbelievable as well,” he said. “At some stages, I felt invincible.”
Thanks to the star power of Federer, the Tennis Masters Cup was not a complete disaster for the Chinese promoters. The fledgling tennis movement in Asia continued. A few months later, the ATP renewed its contract for Shanghai to assume organization for the Masters through 2008. “If the tournament had been damaged by the many forfeits, then it was compensated for by one of the most exciting matches of the year,” the Shanghai Daily wrote the day after the epic Federer-Nalbandian final. John McEnroe was also satisfied. “It was nice to see how hard Federer fought to break my record,” McEnroe said. “Perhaps people will now realize that it’s not so easy to achieve a record of 82-3.”