This article was originally published on March 22, 2018.
Ask any Roger Federer obsessive to name his five greatest matches and chances are the 2004 U.S. Open final won’t be on the list. It took place a long time ago and was soon overshadowed by his epic battles against Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But the ’04 Open final was arguably Federer’s most dominant performance ever, and also the moment the world realized that his talent was possibly at a level beyond anything the sport had seen.
Although Federer, then 23, had already won three majors, this was his first U.S. Open title match, and it was against the most accomplished opponent he had yet faced in a slam final: Lleyton Hewitt, the two-time grand slam champ and former world No. 1 who had beaten Federer in seven of their first 10 meetings. Everyone expected a war; instead, the match turned out to be a historic rout, with Federer drubbing Hewitt 6-0, 7-6, 6-0. That the Aussie came into the final riding a 16-match winning streak and having not dropped a set at the Open made the beatdown he suffered that Sunday afternoon all the more incredible. Hewitt fought like hell — he always fought like hell — but he had no chance. He was simply overwhelmed by Federer’s pace, touch and ability to conjure angles that seemed outside the realm of geometric possibility. Earlier in the tournament, John McEnroe, working as a commentator for CBS, had said of Federer, “You’re witnessing someone who may go down in history as the greatest player who ever lived.” That seemed like a hasty judgment at the time. After the Hewitt match, it didn’t. This is the never-before-told oral history of that moment.
Roger Federer: The 2004 U.S. Open final was a major breakthrough for me. I had won Wimbledon and the Australian, and it was about confirming my status at the top of tennis. But playing Lleyton was tough. Every time I played him, I was ready for long rallies, a very physical match, a mental challenge.
Mary Carillo, broadcaster, booth announcer for the match: You anticipate a certain match. You think it’s going to be about the tenacious Lleyton, there’s going to be a lot of long rallies, he’s going to leg out a lot of these shots that most people can’t get back …
Roger Rasheed, Hewitt’s coach, 2003-07: Lleyton was confident going in. We tried to bring Roger in on our own terms. He came in to a couple of short balls during the first set — they were low because Lleyton chipped them — and he hit this low-ball topspin off the service line that went just over the net and bounced twice before the service line. I was sitting with John Fitzgerald, who was [Australia’s] Davis Cup captain at the time. Fitzy said to me, “That was a mishit.” I said, “No, no, that was done intentionally.”
Federer blanks Hewitt, a two-time major champ, in the first set, taking it 6-0 in just 18 minutes.
Federer: The way I was playing and serving — I felt I could really maintain this level. I was feeling it. But there was a difficult situation in the second set. I was up a set and a break, 6-0, 3-1, and all of a sudden he came back. I knew Lleyton could go through spells where he would not miss a ball for an hour. He would get you in these rallies time and again. Then maybe your legs go, your mind starts wandering and it becomes more complicated. I had to win the second set and not go into the third set on even terms.
Rasheed: There was one moment late in that second set: Lleyton had a second-serve return, Roger went to his backhand and Lleyton dumped it. I thought we were going to get to 15-40, and he dumped it. That was his chance. My god, I wish he’d gotten that ball back.
Carillo: Hewitt played the best tennis he could possibly play, and he still lost that set. Now where do you go?
After winning the second set 7-6, Federer breaks Hewitt to start the third set, then breaks him again to go up 3-0.
Rasheed: Lleyton is still busting his ass, but once Roger grabs you … Roger was just [playing] so free. He’s got the ability to get access to every single part of the court. There are not many players in our sport who have ever had that ability. The way he can spin the ball, his creativity with his hands and his shot selection …
Federer: At this point, I’m fairly confident there’s no coming back for him. Once you do the double break, you’re like, “If I mess this up, then I’m a majorly bad player.”
Carillo: You want it to be competitive, and it’s a terrible thing when it is not. At a certain point, you’re only talking about one side of the net, and that happens a lot with Roger. He was luminous. You just say, “This guy on every level is lapping his very feisty opponent.”
Federer: One-sided matches are a bit of a bummer for people. But as a player, they are the ones you are most excited about because you were able not only to hold your serve but also to break almost at will. You broke the guy six or seven times, and the guy is a top-five player in the world. Australian Open last year: five sets; Australian Open this year: five sets. Yes, they are epic and they stay in your heart because they are so emotional, but the demolition ones stay with you.
Carillo: Love, six, love — Roger threw him down a flight of stairs. You knew what he could do, but you didn’t know he could do that. I thought that Sampras’ 14 [majors, a record] was going to stand there for a while. I think Pete thought the same thing. And all of a sudden [Federer] comes galloping along …
Federer: I knew by winning that one — winning three majors in the same year — that’s no joke. I felt like this career could really become special at this point. Beating Agassi, beating Lleyton, all these were major milestones in getting to believe that I could do this. I came to realize I was able to do stuff that I wasn’t sure I was able to do. Maybe backhand passing shots. Maybe my transition game. My clutch serving. This was stuff I still had to prove to myself, and that’s when I was really able to tell myself, “Big stage, I like it. I can really bring it.” For the rest of my career, it made me believe that this is who I am. I like the big stage.
In addition to tennis, Michael Steinberger shares an interest in wine with Federer. His stories pair well with red burgundies.