A decade after he won his first grand slam title at Wimbledon, grass-court king Roger Federer is on a mission to join Rafael Nadal in an exclusive club.
Two weeks ago the Spaniard won an eighth French Open title and in doing so became the first man ever to reach such a number at any one of the four grand slams. Federer’s victory over Andy Murray in the final here last year put him level with Pete Sampras on seven titles at the All England Club.
The first of those came in 2003, when a 21-year-old, ponytail-sporting Federer defeated Mark Philippoussis in straight sets. He was not beaten in SW19 until the 2008 final, before adding further titles in 2009 and 2012, and he will hope to extend his record for singles grand slam titles to 18 in two weeks’ time.
‘Unbelievable 10 years’
As is tradition for the reigning champion, the 31-year-old will open proceedings on Centre Court today against Romania’s Victor Hanescu, and he said: “It’s been an unbelievable 10 years. “I can’t believe it’s been this successful and this nice in the process. I’ve really enjoyed myself on tour. I’ve made many friends. I started a foundation. I’ve continued to be successful.
“I’ve played so many matches where I went through so many incredible moments. I’m forever grateful to this first Wimbledon title I was able to achieve here.
“It’s all happened a bit too fast for my liking, but I’m happy I’m still playing and continuing to give myself opportunities to be contending for the title
“And being back as well 10 years later as defending champion is quite unique at the same time, so I’m very excited.” Great things were expected from Federer as soon as he picked up a racket, but it was not always a smooth process.
The teenage Swiss had a fiery temper that held him back on court and in the 16 grand slam tournaments he played prior to his first Wimbledon title he lost in the first round six times.
At Wimbledon in 2002 he lost his opening match to Croatian Mario Ancic, and it was that memory that came to mind when he recalled his breakthrough Championships.
He said: “Ten years ago I was incredibly scared to lose again in the first round. I lost in the first round of the French Open as well so I came in with a lot of pressure and having to prove myself.
“So every year that has gone by and every year I did well here, my nerves calmed down. I knew that actually grass is my best surface or one of my best surfaces, whereas early on in your career you're not sure because the grass-court season is so incredibly short.
“Today I know what it takes, which is a good thing. The excitement is the same. I’m still hungry and wanting to win and wanting to prove how good I can play.
“Then you want to relive those incredible moments you’ve had 10 years ago, where you have that honour to play on Centre Court either on opening day or on finals day.
“You can play for the championship. It’s really something that means the world to me.” If Federer is to successfully defend his title, he will have to do it the hard way after a draw that was far from kind to the third seed.
Federer was the unlucky one of the top four who ended up with fifth seed Rafael Nadal in his quarter, meaning he could well have to beat the Spaniard, Murray and World no 1 Novak Djokovic to get his hands on the trophy again.
However, Federer believes the draw is a fuss over nothing and he is ready for whatever comes his way. “For me, it’s not even worth the talk because it is what it is,” Federer said.
“It’s not like he’s (Nadal) unseeded. He is seeded within the top eight. You don’t face him in the first round. The quarter-finals are still a long way away. “It was never supposed to be easy winning grand slams. I’m ready for the challenge. I like tough draws. I don’t shy away from them.”
And as for the prospect of an eighth title, Federer will try to keep the thought out of his mind until the trophy is won. “I’m just happy to be here and happy to be defending the title as of now,” he added. “I can talk about that if I’ve won the tournament, but not right before. I know the road is hard, but it is possible. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”