Roger Federer won his fourth Tennis Masters Cup title Sunday, defeating Spain’s David Ferrer 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 in the championship match. Roger’s first title at the Tennis Masters Cup came in 2003, when he entered the tournament with not a lot of fanfare, despite being the reigning Wimbledon champion. Below you will find an excerpt from THE ROGER FEDERER STORY, QUEST FOR PERFECTION (www.rogerfedererbook.com
, $24.95, New Chapter Press), where author Rene Stauffer recounts Roger’s win in Houston in 2003.
In 2003, Roger Federer won six tournaments on all different surfaces—indoors in Marseille and Vienna, hard courts in Dubai, clay in Munich and grass in Halle and at Wimbledon. However, a gap in his resume was the absence of a tournament title in North America. Of the 21 tournaments he played on the North American continent since he turned professional, 10 ended in the first round. On only one occasion—in Key Biscayne in 2002—did he manage to make his way into a singles final. He wasn’t even able to muscle his way as far as the quarterfinals at the US Open or at the big events in Cincinnati or Indian Wells.
Entering the 2003 year-end Tennis Masters Cup, which moved from Shanghai to Houston, Texas, Federer was perceived as just one of the players in the field—void of the usual fanfare of a Wimbledon champion. Said Bud Collins, the famed Boston Globe tennis columnist, “If you want to be famous in the United States, you have to win here.”
Federer was well aware of his poor record in North America, but blamed his lack of major success on the fact that he only played the major North American events. These events featured all of the top players and, thus, were more difficult to win, especially with a minimal amount of training time on the American hard courts. “The players who live in the USA have an advan¬tage because they can prepare better,” he said. “But then again we Europeans hold the advantage in Europe.” For Federer, the training conditions in the United States were less than ideal for him—the amount of practice and proper preparation time was reduced due to travel and the weather conditions were more extreme than in Europe. For a fine technician like Federer, these details made a difference between marked success and failure—especially consider¬ing that under ideal conditions, Federer reached the finals in seven of his last 12 tournaments he played in his home base of Europe. Overall, 15 of his 18 finals to date were played in Europe.
Federer also still considered himself to be an indoor specialist—half of his tournament final appearances were at indoor events. In North America, how¬ever, indoor tournaments are scarce, pay less and do not have the prestige of those in Europe. In fact, he was yet to play an indoor event in the United States, which made it even more disappointing for him that the Tennis Masters Cup, traditionally an indoor event, was played outdoors in Houston.
In contrast to his first visit to the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai the year before, where everything was organized down to the last detail, Federer was disappointed by the conditions at Houston’s Westside Tennis Club, located in the middle of a residential area with 46 courts, featuring all four Grand Slam court surfaces. For starters, the surface of the court slanted downwards from the line judge’s chair and was so uneven that balls took unpredictable bounces. The new—and apparently hastily built—stadium court could only seat some 7,000 people—a capacity that was small for a tournament of this stature. Since the event in Houston featured—for the first time in almost 20 years—the year-end singles and doubles championships at the same site, Federer and his fellow competitors found there was not enough space in the dressing rooms or on the practice courts to properly prepare and practice. At one point during his stay in Houston, Federer was forced to practice with Lundgren on a court that didn’t even have a net!
Federer’s luck of the draw did nothing to improve his mood. He was placed in the “Blue Group” of the round-robin event, where he was joined by Juan Carlos Ferrero, Andre Agassi, and…David Nalbandian. It would be a difficult challenge for Federer, who lost three of the last five matches against Ferrero, was winless against Agassi in three previous matches and was 0-5 in career matches with Nalbandian.
In the pre-event media round-table interviews, Federer was not reserved in expressing his criticism of the tournament. He confidently and objec¬tively stated that he did not believe it was right that the event be played outdoors. He was also not shy in discussing the less than perfect condi¬tions—stating his opinion that the stadium was too small and the court surface—with its slant—was not up to the standard of a Tennis Masters Cup. His criticisms were consistent—whether he was asked in English, French or German.
His comments had repercussions. Shortly after the sessions with the media, Federer was abruptly approached and spoken to by a gray-haired man, who had not even properly introduced himself before confronting the Wimbledon champion. The man was Jim McIngvale, followed closely by his wife Linda, the owners of the Westside Tennis Club. McIngvale, who was known in his colorful television commercials as “Mattress Mack,” was an excitable figure who was responsible for the event and made it possible. He was a self-made millionaire whose furniture business—“Gallery Furniture”—was the most successful of its kind in the United States. He was the live embodiment of the big-mouthed Texan—the familiar stereotype from a wide variety of jokes.
McIngvale was a self-professed patriot who preferred to wear shirts dis¬playing the American flag and an unabashed fan of both Andy Roddick and especially of Andre Agassi. Both Roddick and Agassi were winners the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships—another ATP event organized and run by the McIngvales at the Westside Tennis Club each year. Agassi praised McIngvale as a “phenomenal promoter” and “one of the greatest things to happen to tennis.” The McIngvales professed that they invested more than $25 million in organizing the Tennis Masters Cup. They even went as far to advertise the tournament during the Super Bowl, shelling out around $1 mil¬lion each for three television advertisements.
Federer’s criticism of the facility and the tournament reached the ear of McIngvale, who took it as a personal insult. McIngvale confronted and scold¬ed Federer in a manner that the Wimbledon champion was not accustomed to. Federer was confused, hurt, disappointed and angry. For a moment, he even considered withdrawing from the tournament and leaving. Fortunately, he reconsidered.
The Houston Chronicle speculated that Federer was not aware of who McIngvale was—and the newspaper explained to Federer that he was “the best thing for tennis since the introduction of the tie-break.” The newspaper also stated that McIngvale recruited crazy fans to pump up the atmosphere at the event and unleashed the fans to cheer against Federer in his opening match with Agassi.
Not surprisingly, Federer seemed a bit uncomfortable against Agassi, who won the Australian Open at the start of the year. In the first-set tie-break, Federer quickly lost the first six points, only to lose 7-3. Rather than folding in the difficult conditions, Federer rallied and won the second set—only the second set he ever won from the American legend. When Federer took a 5-3 lead in the final set, a great triumph appeared imminent. But, like his Davis Cup experience against Hewitt two months earlier, Federer’s nerves got the best of him when a major victory was in sight. A double fault allowed Agassi back in the match, tying the score at 5-5 in the third set. Many of McIngvale’s fans jumped and screamed in approval. McIngvale himself was not shy in rooting openly for Agassi. Federer’s disappointment was unmistakable. In the final-set tie-break, another double fault placed him in a 1-3 deficit. The end seemed near.
But the minutes that followed turned out to be the most important mo¬ments for Federer in the tournament—and possibly in his career. Perhaps benefiting from the fact that Agassi had not played a tournament since the US Open concluded two months earlier due to the birth of his second child, Federer was given a reprieve. Agassi missed what he called “a sitter forehand that I haven’t missed since 1989” followed by a double fault to allow Federer back in the match. Agassi, however, reached match point at 6-5, only to miss a return of serve. Two points later, Agassi again reached match point at 7-6, with Federer saving himself with a brilliant forehand. A point later, Federer himself had a match point at 8-7. Agassi’s return of serve landed dangerously close to the line—some observers even saying the ball was out. But without an out call from linesman, Federer played on—without distress—and hit a spectacular cross court forehand passing shot to punctuate his first-ever victory over the American legend. Game, set and match Federer 6-7 (3), 6-3, 7-6 (7)
Wearing a baseball hat, Federer walked into the post-match press confer¬ence around midnight and tried to play cool. The victory was very important to him—his best ever in the United States—and Federer, nonetheless, had difficulties hiding his emotions and expressing them in words. The victory had a liberating effect on Federer, as displayed two days later, when for the first time, he ended his hex against Nalbandian, defeating the Argentine for the first time in his professional career 6-3, 6-0. With Nalbandian’s earlier win over Ferrero and Agassi’s defeat of Ferrero, Federer clinched a spot in the semifinals as the winner of his difficult round-robin flight. Federer’s bad mood was now a distant memory.
The quest for the year-end No. 1 ranking was also decided in round-robin play in the favor of Roddick, who held the No. 1 ranking since November 3. However, in a foreshadowing of things to come, Federer dismissed Roddick 7-6 (2), 6-2 in the semifinals to reach the Tennis Masters Cup final. Waiting in the final was Agassi, who finished second to Federer in their round-robin flight but defeated German Rainer Schuettler in the other semifinal. This time, Federer showed him no quarter from the beginning. Even after a two-and-a-half-hour rain delay, Federer dominated Agassi, winning the championship match 6-3, 6-0, 6-4 in just 88 minutes. “That was one of the best perfor¬mances of my career,” said Federer who didn’t face a break point against both Roddick and Agassi. “I don’t know if I have potential to improve, but I’m satisfied if I can maintain this level.” His reward was lavish. He received $1.52 million in prize money—as well as a Mercedes convertible and 750 points that allowed him to squeeze past Ferrero into the No. 2 ranking be¬hind Roddick. “Ending the year in second place isn’t bad either,” Federer said before leaving Texas. While the ATP computer ranked him No. 2, he ranked first for the year in number of tournament victories (7), match victories (78) and prize money earned ($4,000,680). Bud Collins of the Boston Globe agreed. “Forget the world rankings.” Collins wrote. “Roger Federer is now the best in the business.”
Only Mr. McIngvale appeared to have a distorted view of events from the highest row in the grandstands, where he sat during the championship match. Anybody listening to his endless address at the award ceremony would have assumed that it was Agassi who was the Tennis Masters Cup champion and not Federer. In his post-match ceremony remarks, McIngvale openly praised the exploits, talents and achievements of Agassi, reserving only one short sen¬tence of praise for that of Federer, the man who had, in fact, won the event.