Roger Federer will face Croatia’s Mario Ancic in Wednesday’s quarterfinals at Wimbledon. It has been well-documented that in the first round of Wimbledon in 2002 that Ancic, an 18-year-old qualifier, defeated the much-hyped Federer, one year removed from his titanic fourth-round upset of Pete Sampras. The loss marked the last time Federer lost on grass and at Wimbledon as the Swiss maestro has ripped off five Wimbledon titles including a record 63 straight wins on grass and 38 straight at the All England Club. Rene Stauffer in his book The Roger Federer Story, Quest for Perfection ($24.95, New Chapter Press, www.rogerfedererbook.com) details this famous match between Federer and Ancic, excerpted below. (To order this book at a special 34 percent off discount, click here.)
Federer was considered the hottest player on the ATP Tour on the eve of both the French Open and Wimbledon. He arrived in Paris with hero-like status and viewed himself as a dangerous dark horse threat to win both titles. Prior to his first-round match with Morocco’s Hicham Arazi in Paris, Federer said he was hoping not to expend too much energy. He fulfilled this goal, but not exactly in the way he planned. On a cool, drizzly Tuesday on tiny Court No. 2, Federer faced Arazi who, after a miserable clay court season, was only ranked No. 45 in the world. But Federer committed 58 unforced errors in 95 minutes of play and decisively lost 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. It was a debacle. He complained about the slipperiness of the court, the rainy, dreary weather, about being fatigued after Hamburg, and praised Arazi. In short-he was confused.
He now had plenty of time to prepare for the grass courts at Wimbledon, where he defeated Pete Sampras the year before. British bookies ranked Federer behind Hewitt, Safin, Agassi and Henman as the fifth most likely player to win the Wimbledon title. To John McEnroe, Federer was the favorite and boldly predicted he would win the tournament. Former Wimbledon finalist Malivai Washington said to ESPN that “it is only a matter of time until Federer wins his first Grand Slam tournament. The real question is how many Grand Slam tournaments will he win?”
Prior to the start of The Championships, the ATP organized a telephone press conference with Federer for the international press. “I feel that my chances of winning the tournament are good,” he explained on the call, while he attempted to refute the theory that he could not come to terms with being the favorite. “I feel better when I’m the favorite and I know that I can win the tournament. It helps me not to be the outsider. That’s why I’m playing better this year than in previous years.”
But Federer was also aware of the fact that he still didn’t have a Grand Slam title, and that many were expecting him to win one-and soon. Federer, himself, felt burdened by the expectations, but more from the expectations that he placed upon himself to break through and win a Grand Slam tournament title. His impatience grew with each missed opportunity. He placed an enormous amount of pressure to break through and win either Wimbledon or the US Open in 2002.
In the first round at Wimbledon, Federer drew Croatian teenager Mario Ancic. Federer had no idea who he was and didn’t find out much about him before their match. Prior to the 2002 Wimbledon Championships, the 18-year-old Ancic primarily played junior events and only advanced into the Wimbledon main draw through the qualifying tournament. He was ranked No. 154 in the world and stood at nearly six feet, six inches tall. The 2001 Wimbledon Champion Goran Ivanisevic, who like Ancic hailed from the Croatian coastal city of Split, even gave his young countryman tips on how to play Federer. Wimbledon was Ancic’s Grand Slam tournament debut and his first match was played on Centre Court of all places, against Federer, the man who one year earlier defeated one of Wimbledon’s greatest champions on the very same court.
Roger’s father Robert, who seldom watched his son play live, traveled to Wimbledon to watch his son. Sitting in the bleachers at Centre Court, he anticipated peacefully watching a routine first-round victory for his son on this pleasant, warm and dry afternoon. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Like in Paris, Roger unceremoniously lost in the tournament’s opening round without winning a set. He was unrecognizable compared to the previous year’s heroics and only scored one ace against the young Ancic in the 6-3, 7-6 (2), 6-3 loss.
Federer was shocked. As in Paris, he couldn’t understand why he played so poorly. “I normally like to compliment young players,” he said, “but the way I performed today, I can’t really judge Ancic.” Federer was forced to witness the top-ranked Hewitt, who was not considered to be a grass court specialist, go on to beat David Nalbandian in the final to become the first Australian Wimbledon champion since Pat Cash in 1987.
By contrast, Federer dropped out of the top 10 by virtue of his Wimbledon performance. Two weeks later at the Swiss Open in Gstaad, Federer experienced another unexpected defeat at the hands of Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic in the second round. His crisis was incomprehensible. “He’s not himself on the court anymore,” said Lundgren. “Technically, there’s nothing wrong with his game. It’s in his head. He feels the pressure.” For the moment, Federer lost his entire creativity, his entire joy in playing tennis and his self-confidence. “I allowed myself to become too dragged down mentally and I thought I couldn’t play tennis anymore,” he said later.
But his greatest setback still lay before him and it would come from a completely unexpected direction.