The matches that launched their careers

Published by Steve Barrett

Rafael Nadal celebrates during his win over Roger Federer at the Miami Open in 2004. Photo: Getty Images

Any gaps between natural talent and expected results can close quickly when a player scores a headline-grabbing win. Steve Barrett explores confidence boosting victories that helped transform promising careers into champion ones.

Rafael Nadal

2004 Miami Masters R3 d. Roger Federer 63 63
Battling a flu and below his scintillating best, world No.1 Federer was still expected to topple the impressively built, but relatively unknown, 34th-ranked teenage clay court specialist from Mallorca. Nadal never allowed his opponent a sniff, playing near flawless tennis while attacking Federer’s backhand under instruction.

In 70 minutes it was over and young Rafa was now a man to be reckoned with.

“I was afraid that he could win 61 61 or 61 62 but I was really looking forward to playing this match because I was playing against the No.1 player,” Nadal said post-match.

“I went on court with a positive attitude, not with the attitude of ‘oh, let’s try and win one game’. I have much more confidence and I know that I can play at that level, that I belong to the higher level of players.”

The following year Rafa transformed his new-found belief into French Open glory, eliminating Federer in the semifinals en route to the first of his all-time record nine victories at Roland Garros.

Venus Williams

2000 Wimbledon QF d. Martina Hingis 6-3 4-6 6-4
Venus is 105 days older than Hingis but was undoubtedly the junior rival in their early days on tour.

The Swiss Miss claimed eight of the pair’s first 11 match-ups and three-out-of-three in majors. Hingis was world No.1 and a five-time Grand Slam champion, while Venus’ best effort was making the 1997 US Open final, which Hingis won convincingly.

Confidence was rarely an issue for Venus, except when she played Hingis in big matches.

The 2000 Wimbledon quarterfinals saw Venus finally shake her Hingis hoodoo, combining calmness with aggression to prevail in a tight three-setter.

“This is great because I’ve never had the opportunity to win in a major against Hingis, (and) this is the fourth time we’ve played (in Slams),” Venus said post match. “We were always taught to believe we were the best, even if we weren’t the best.

“As a competitor, there’s no way you should believe that someone is better than you.”

Venus ousted younger sister Serena in the semis before claiming her first major with a neat win over Lindsay Davenport in the final.

Carrying her restored belief into the US Open, Venus recorded an intense, come-from-behind semifinal victory over Hingis before downing Davenport, again, in the decider.

In 2001, Venus repeated the dose with another Wimbledon-US Open double to stamp herself as a modern-day great.

Roger Federer

2001 Wimbledon R4 d. Pete Sampras 7-6(7) 5-7 6-4 6-7(2) 7-5
Federer, the 1998 Wimbledon junior champion, had all the hallmarks of a grasscourt legend, but success in the pros wasn’t immediate.

Granted a Wimbledon wildcard in 1999, Federer lost a first rounder to Czech Jiri Novak then, disappointingly, lost again in straight sets in 2000, also in round one, to Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov, a former world No.1 but never a genuine Wimbledon threat.

The gifted Federer was in grave danger of having his card marked ‘unfulfilled potential’.

In 2001, he almost choked on a 2-0 sets lead in an unconvincing second round win over Belgian Xavier Malisse before taking care of Jonas Bjorkman to set up an enticing fourth-round blockbuster against seven-time champion Sampras, who had won 56 of his previous 57 Wimbledon matches.

Federer and Sampras split the first four sets before the American created two break point opportunities in the fifth that would have allowed him to serve for the match at 5-4. But Federer held firm and eventually triumphed with a ripping forehand return down the line.

The baton had changed hands.

Federer had arrived. “I had the feeling that that first set was very important, that I came back from set point down to win the set,” he said. “That gave me a lot of confidence … because I had the feeling, I mean, I really can beat him. It’s just a great feeling I’d never had before.”

Two years later Federer raised his first Wimbledon trophy and eventually matched Sampras’ All England tally of seven during a truly remarkable record-breaking career.

Steffi Graf

1986 Family Circle Cup Final d. Chris Evert 6-4 7-5
Prodigiously-talented Graf was always destined for greatness but her early showings against Evert and Navratilova, were ugly. Very ugly.

Graf lost her first six matches against Evert and her first three clashes with Navratilova, failing to even pinch a lousy set off the world’s two best players.

The German wunderkid with the booming forehand, still just 16, finally broke her duck, fearlessly beating eight-time winner Evert in the Family Circle Cup final to collect the first of her 107 WTA titles.

Evert was up a break in the first and held sway 4-0 in the second but Graf, for the first time, had all the answers.

“When I won, I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what to say” Graf said.

Graf turned her breakthrough into four successive tournament victories, capped by a thrashing of her other nemesis, Navratilova, in barely an hour in the German Open decider.

The following season, Graf marched to her maiden Slam triumph, downing Martina with an 8-6 third-set verdict in a French Open final thriller before finishing the year as the new world No.1.

She also never lost to Evert again.

Andy Murray

2006 Cincinnati Masters R2 d. Roger Federer 7-5 6-4
Gunning for his 18th successive tournament final and without a single loss to anyone not named Nadal for the first seven months of 2006, Federer wasn’t expected to be overly bothered by Andy Murray, a talented, shaggy-haired 19-year-old Scot, in the second round at Ohio.

The pair had met once, the 2005 Thailand Open decider, with Federer prevailing in straight sets, notwithstanding some fine shotmaking from young Murray (who even conjured a break of serve).

Some 10 months later, Murray broke Federer’s serve an astonishing seven times to register his biggest ‘scalp’ to date.

“Obviously I wasn’t expecting to win, so when it did happen, I was in a little bit of shock,” Murray said. “I think there always comes a time when it’s kind of meant to be.

“Federer won against Sampras at Wimbledon (2001) and I think that was the moment where everybody looked at him and said ‘this guy is special’.

“I think when you win against a guy like Federer, guys might have seen me as more of a contender and going deep into Grand Slams because I had won against the best player in the world.”

This article first appeared in Australian Tennis Magazine.

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