As Roger Federer starts his quest for his seventh World Tour Finals title, it occurred to me that this could be a good time to revisit a match I had never watched, but heard plenty about: Federer’s semifinal encounter with Marat Safin at the 2004 Masters Cup, held that year in Houston, Texas.
You read that last bit correctly: the ATP somehow decided to place its signature event in Houston. I live here now, and this makes absolutely no sense to me.
And I like Houston.
Anyway, moving along.
2004 was Federer’s true breakout season. Even though he had won his first Slam at Wimbledon the year before, 2003 paled in comparison to this:
Roger Federer played 11 finals in 2004. He won them all. Take a look at his haul:
That’s 3 Grand Slams, 3 Masters Series, the Masters Cup and four assorted medium-sized tournaments.
(Notice something strange in that list? One title that is unlike the others? Yep, somehow Gstaad made it in there. Gstaad. Funny to think of Federer as someone who would play on clay right after winning Wimbledon, but that’s precisely what happened in 2004. Maybe he was homesick and wanted to be in Switzerland for a while. It’s also strange to see that the Gstaad final was best of 5, while the Canada Masters Series final was best of 3. Ah…tennis. Always making sense)
Roger Federer was 22 years old when the 2004 season started, and he was 23 by the time he arrived in Houston. Fully entering his prime, the ex-ponytail wielder was ready to defend the title he earned the year before, when he did this to Andre Agassi in the final:
The match lasted 96 minutes.
Speaking of Agassi, in 2004 the ATP was still very much his tour. He was the biggest draw until he retired at the 2006 US Open. Coincidentally, when Federer won that specific US Open, he passed Agassi as the active player with most Grand Slam titles. But that’s 2006 and we’re in 2004.
As we know, Federer ended up doubling Agassi’s Grand Slam total…and adding an extra one for good measure.
According to many, that win over Agassi in the 2003 Masters Cup (also played in Houston) was the event that kick-started Federer’s incredible season, which included an interesting development: 2004 was the year he started his campaign of vicious annihilation of the top three rivals of his generation. Here’s the gory list:
– By the end of 2004, Federer was ahead 8-1 in his head-to-head with Andy Roddick, beating him 3 times that year.
– In 2004, Federer turned the tables on one of his chief tormentors, Lleyton Hewitt: the Swiss went 6-0 against the Aussie in 2004, which meant that their head-to-head went from being 7-2 in favor of Hewitt by the end of 2003, to being 8-7 in favor of Federer by the start of 2005. That’s quite an achievement. For good measure, Federer beat Hewitt twice at the Houston Masters Cup of 2004, losing a combined total of 12 games in both encounters.
– Federer beat Safin three times in 2004, starting with a win in the final of that year’s Australian Open. For those who don’t remember that particular edition, look at the draw. And look at Safin’s path to the final. Yep – the Russian folk hero failed to win a single match in straight sets. He won three matches in four sets, and three matches in five sets, including his quarterfinal win over Andy Roddick and his epic semifinal with Andre Agassi. By the time Safin reached the final, he had been on court for about 149595784034 hours (and strangely, played four straight Americans: Todd Martin, James Blake, Roddick and Agassi. Safin also played an American called Brian Vahaly in the first round). On the other end, Federer blitzed through his draw and found very little resistance from the Russian after the first set tiebreaker in the final went the Swiss’ way. You could argue that Federer was playing at such a high level that even a fully rested Safin wouldn’t have been able to wrestle that title from Federer. Still, by the time of their encounter in Houston, their head-to-head was 5-1 in favor of Federer, which is kind of symmetrical, since by the time Safin retired, their head-to-head had duplicated itself exactly, finishing at 10-2 in favor of the Swiss.
In short: Federer was having a monster of a year, showing a kind of dominance the tour hadn’t seen in a long time, but one that we’ve somehow grown accustomed to since. One example of this paradigm shift: in 2004 Federer became the first man since Mats Wilander in 1988 to win 3 Grand Slams in one season. In 2012, there are 3 active players who’ve achieved that feat since 2004: Federer (2004, 2006 and 2007), Rafael Nadal (2010) and Novak Djokovic (2011).
How things change, eh?
Safin had a very different 2004 than Federer. One reason he had to play such a tough draw in Australia was that he entered that tournament ranked 86 in the world. Safin was coming back from injury, a common theme with him. Sadly, another Safin theme was his inconsistency: after his Australian Open run, the Russian managed just two (!) tour wins until he made a run to the Estoril final, where he found a way to lose to Juan Ignacio Chela.
Juan. Ignacio. Chela.
In case you didn’t click on the link above to see Safin’s 2004 playing activity, please do. It really gives you a good idea of the full Marat Safin experience: 1 Grand Slam final, 2 Masters Series wins (Madrid and Paris), and the title in Beijing. Also: he lost 6 times in the first round of a tournament, and 5 times in the second round.
Still, by the time Marat Safin took the court in Houston in that Masters Cup semifinal, he was on a roll: he had just won the aforementioned Masters Series titles, and was ranked 82 spots higher than he was at the beginning of the season: the tall Russian had climbed all the way up to number 4 in the world. Regardless of the impending loss to Federer, the Russian would carry this momentum (a rarity for him) into the 2005 Australian Open, beat Federer in an all-time epic five-setter for only the second time in his life. Safin followed up his huge win by clinching his second Grand Slam title at the expense of Hewitt.
That’s how things were on November 20th, 2004. And now that the table is set, let’s dive into the match:
0:00 – Just compare the first 15 seconds of this video to what happens in 2012 at the O2 Arena in London. It’s like night and day, no? Judging by the first images of the video, you’d think we’re watching Cincinnati, not the Masters Cup. There is no light show, no smoke, no glitzy arena with celebrities, nothing. Just a guy walking into the stadium through a cordoned corridor flanked by a number of fans no one would describe as impressive.
0:34 – Cliff Drysdale says, trying to pump us up, that today’s match pits “the fiery Russian….against the Swiss cheese”.
1:12 – We see a panoramic view of the Houston stadium. It looks like Winston Salem. Oy.
1:47 – Montage of Federer’s 2004 Grand Slam season. Which started with a ponytail that lasted until the US Open. However, once the montage ends, we see Federer sporting the kind of look he’s worn without much alteration since then, and the ponytail had been forever evicted. Even if it “helped” him to 4 Grand Slams.
4:22 – Safin’s montage ends with Mary Carillo talking about how much time the Russian had spent on court during his amazing run in Australia earlier in the year. It was impossible not to remember.
6:35 – We see the following graph:
So many questions. Indesit? Federer only had 1177 points? This was only 8 years ago, and this ranking table makes no sense to me. The ATP: always making it easy for people to follow and understand the sport.
8:21 – This is the shirt Federer is wearing:
Black in the front (good call), white in the back (horrible call). If it weren’t for the swoosh, you’d think Federer was wearing one of those ugly Yonex shirts we see today.
8:30 – Patrick McEnroe says that “a name to look out for next year…Tomas Berdych”. I’m chuckling. Of course, PMac mentions the Czech because one of the few blemishes in Federer’s incredible season was a second round loss to Berdych at the Athens Olympics, which ended up spurring Federer into a 15-match winning streak.
PMac wasn’t completely wrong, though: Berdych would win his first (and so far, only) Masters Series title in 2005. But we know how the rest of Berdych’s story goes.
It’s fun to look into the past.
9:48 – Federer holds to 15 to start the match, and I’m wondering what Safin is trying to accomplish in this match. He seems to be perfectly happy to merely rally with Federer…even though he doesn’t move or defend nearly as well as Federer. Doesn’t seem like a winning proposition.
11:24 – We see a slo-mo replay of a crazy Federer shot: running backhand flick pass down the line. I’m not sure I’ve seen him hit that shot in years. Not that it’s a shot you hit all the time. Or ever. Cliffy, PMac and Mary Carillo have a private moment in the booth. A little later, Federer breaks at love.
12:04 – Cliff Drysdale compares Federer to Laver. Some things don’t ever change.
13:57 – Federer is up 3-0 in what seems like two seconds. Safin has won all of one point.
14:02 – We hear Safin’s voice over a montage of Federer. He says Federer will be one of the best of all time (4 Grand Slams at the time, Marat), and that he makes other players look bad. This was a common trend among pros during Federer’s dominant years. You think they were spectators more than competitors. All they were missing were the “Witness” t-shirts.
14:05 – Roddick talks about Federer in a more coherent, competitive way. Less of a star-struck fan than Safin. Same for Hewitt and Henman. Moya, not so much.
15:18 – Moya ends his second take on Federer by saying that while he’s played Agassi and Sampras, he thinks Federer is better.
Remember, this is after just 4 Slams, and the people providing these quotes are Federer’s (supposed) biggest threats. The Swiss’ Slam tally was still 4 away from Agassi, and 10 away from Sampras. Part of me wonders if the players, media and fans were just famished for a dominant figure, particularly after the Dark Ages of the early 2000s.
In the end, they were right, and they got their wish.
What’s interesting about 2004 is that mixed in all the glory of 11 titles, there was this somewhat strange result in Miami:
Federer’s biggest foe had arrived, and even drawn first blood in their famous rivalry. But Rafael Nadal was still a 17-year old at the time of that Miami win. Federer had to wait a full year to play Nadal again, and they would only play twice in 2005. Anyway, that’s a story for another day.
17:30 – We see Federer’s paradigm-shifting defense in full display. Safin has to hit about 3 winners to finally win the point and get on the scoreboard.
A little later Safin realizes that just rallying with Federer won’t cut it and starts going for more on his shots. The Russian even gets to 15-30 on Federer’s serve, but then approaches Federer’s backhand…and gets comfortably passed.
People forget how key that cross-court backhand pass was for Federer as he established his reign over men’s tennis. The book on the Swiss was that you had to only rally to his backhand, and an error would come. He was an improved version of Feliciano López. Then, as the backhand got better in 2003, people started attacking that side instead of merely rallying to it, and forcing Federer to come up with passing shots off that wing. Which the Swiss started doing with alarming regularity.
These days things have changed, and we rarely see people approaching Federer’s backhand anymore. For good reason – that cross-court backhand pass is still there, and it will inevitably make you pay.
21:49 – Safin gets another shot at gushing about Federer. This time he’s more composed, makes note of how Federer’s backhand has improved, and at the end says that he will have to play really well to beat the Swiss. But right after that, you sense his self-belief flagging, as he adds “to at least to have a chance”. PMac notes that Safin didn’t seem too optimistic. Huge understatement.
The picture of optimism.
25:30 – Mary Carillo mentions that Federer didn’t play both indoor Masters Series (the two that Safin ended up winning), because of an injury he sustained in the first round of Basel. I had forgotten about that one.
26:40 – Federer closes an easy love hold by using his patented short slice to bring Safin in and then passing him like it was nothing. Again, something that Federer doesn’t do much anymore, but was almost automatic for quite a few years.
28:10 – PMac goes on a soliloquy about how he was looking forward to this event to see if there was anybody in the field who could “make an impression” on Federer (answer: nobody. Only Moyá took a set, and that was when Federer had already clinched his spot in the semis). Mary Carillo jumps in, and they both start to wonder about who will get in Federer’s way in years to come (answer: that young Spaniard who beat him in Miami earlier in the year!)
28:36 – Safin is down 15-30, 2-5. It’s just incredible how fast Federer is, how consistent he is with shots that are meant to hurt, and how Safin has no idea what’s coming at any given point. Federer is flying high with confidence: he’s hit quite a few really aggressive backhands down the line. Federer has also done a great job of easily neutralizing Safin’s violently flat cross-court backhands with his own backhand slice. Thus, Safin finds himself having to attack again, knowing he made no inroads whatsoever.
There’s a reason why the head-to-head between these two ended up being so lopsided – it’s a horrible match-up for Safin. The Russian loved to boss people around from the middle of the court, and since few players could deal with his power (on the day his shots were going in, naturally), he didn’t have to worry too much about having to defend. Federer flips the table on this game plan, since he neutralizes Safin’s power with ease, and even overpowers Safin when they trade forehands. But Federer’s great success against Safin starts with the freedom of knowing that he can improvise during a point without being punished: Federer can use his full arsenal to get Safin on the move and on his back foot. And once that happens, it’s only a matter of time until the Swiss comes in for the kill. By taking Safin out of his preferred attack positions, Federer undermines Safin’s entire game. And the temperamental Russian is forced to go for more on shots he normally wouldn’t force, just to regain a little bit of control over the proceedings.
The other problem comes with the serve: Federer always had a good read on Safin’s delivery, while Safin always found it difficult to consistently return deep enough so that Federer couldn’t get the first strike in.
30:50 – Mary Carillo compares Federer’s offense to “Tweety Bird”. It was a long metaphor, it kinda made sense, but still ended up being weird.
Also, remember: we did hear the words “Swiss cheese” earlier.
33:25 – Safin plays a great first point on Federer’s serve, drilling a deep return and following up with another aggressive shot that catches the line…but is called out. No Hawk-eye in 2004. No overrule.
Related: this man was the chair umpire for the match:
Safin complains in vain, because even he had to know that Steve Ulrich never overrules anything. Ever.
Question: would Safin’s career be any different had Hawkeye been available for most of it? We all know Marat Safin loved to find reasons to lose his cool. What if bad line calls weren’t one of them?
Answer: Safin still would’ve found a way to lose his mind.
After a Federer ace, Safin goes into a long tirade against Ulrich. To no avail. You could hear Federer bouncing the ball, ready to serve, during part of it.
A little later, Safin hits a forehand down the line return winner. It’s easy to forget how great of a returner Safin was. Best tall returner of serve ever? But then the Russian overcooks a forehand, misses by about 4 feet, and Federer has the first set in the bag.
The set itself was pretty straightforward: Safin started tentatively, Federer started in God mode, got the early break, and cruised from there. However, it certainly was interesting to hear the commentators discuss the dynamics at play in 2004, and the perception people had of Roger Federer at that moment in time. Particularly what his peers thought of this 23 year-old with just 4 Grand Slams.
In a way, it’s not difficult to see why everybody was in awe of Federer: he was just that much better than everybody that year. Federer could match his opponent’s strengths…and destroy them with other weapons at his disposal. He could defend as well (or better) than Hewitt, and overpower him from the baseline. Federer could serve as effectively (or more effectively) than Roddick, neutralize his serve, and then blitz him from the back of the court. The Swiss’ forehand was more devastating and versatile than Moyá’s, but unlike the Spaniard, Federer could actually hit backhands and defend. And last but not least, Federer could match as well as neutralize Safin’s power, taking the Russian out of his comfort zone.
The other aspect of Federer’s rise that took everyone by surprise was his level of excellence week in and week out. His tally of 11 titles was the most since Muster had won 12 at some point in the mid-nineties. That level of consistency had been absent from the ATP for quite a while.
Had Nadal, Djokovic and Murray not appeared, men’s tennis would’ve ended up being like the World Rally Championship, where the Frenchman Sebastien Loeb has just clinched his 9th straight title. Think about that for a second – at the highest level of a sport, someone has won 9 straight championships. The previous best for (not consecutive) titles was…4. Loeb has pulverized every record imaginable, demoralized and destroyed all his rivals, and the sport itself has been fading throughout his reign. Thankfully, men’s tennis avoided that fate, and Federer eventually found a batch of peers that truly presented more complex riddles for him to try and solve than his contemporaries ever did.