The former ball boy first played at the event 20 years ago, and was now playing the Swiss Indoors for the 18th time.
And although the victories did not come immediately for the nervous teenager, Federer made his first final before he turned 20.
By the time he took to court on the final day of the tournament in 2018 as the defending champion, he had notched up 14 finals, 70 match-wins, and was in pursuit of his ninth title, his 20th match-win in a row.
The last time Federer had not reached the championship match was in 2003: He had now made 12 straight finals. And he had not lost a match in Basel since he was beaten in the 2013 final by Juan Martin del Potro.
The expectations from the Swiss faithful, then, were high. Yet still, he admitted to Simon Haring in Aargauer Zeitung, he felt the nerves:
“I still get nervous. It may be that I get very tense before a game, that the pulse goes up and I feel insecure. That still happens. It’s more stressful, but it’s nice too. This tingling shows me how much tennis still means to me.”
The nerves were surely not helped by his struggle for consistency since the summer. He revealed only this week that he had picked up a hand injury during the grass swing, and in retrospect, that explained a lot: poor serving stats, forehand errors, and frustration by the bucket-load as he let winning positions slip away.
He still blew hot and cold in Shanghai last week, losing in the semis in straight sets to Borna Coric, and the Swiss fans were kept on the edge of their seats this week, while Federer gingerly extended his winning streak at the St Jakobshalle arena.
He was taken to three sets by Filip Krajinovic, then again by Gilles Simon in the quarters, having pulled back from a break down to clinch the tie-break first set.
But against the highest ranked opponent this week, the in-form Daniil Medvedev, Federer’s serving edged the right side of 50 percent from the start.
Now he faced an unexpected opponent, one that on paper he should beat comfortably, the 28-year-old Romanian Marius Copil.
Ranked 93 in the world, Copil had made just one final in his career before, in Sofia this year. In Basel, he reached his second, via qualifying, and beat not just the third seed Marin Cilic in the second round but then the No2 seed, Alexander Zverev, in the semis.
It made the big single-hander the first qualifier to play for the title in Basel since 2005, and the lowest-ranked finalist at this tournament since 1994.
Now he had a shot at becoming the 14th first-time champion in 2018, and he soon proved just what a worthy finalist he was, as he hustled the Swiss at his own game, serving big and coming forward to take the initiative.
The Romanian broke in the third game and held to take a 3-1 lead. The pace was fast and furious between the two attacking players, and Federer upped his own level to break back in the sixth game.
From now on the serving was impenetrable: By the time they reached the set’s tie-break conclusion, Federer had made 22/22 first serves, with Copil not far behind. And not until the seventh point did a serve get dropped, and it was by Copil. That was enough to propel Federer to the first set, 7-6(5).
Again, as if to underscore the unusual patterns in Federer’s tennis this week, he dropped serve early, finding the box only three times in 10 serves. He saved two break points but the third, courtesy of a drop shot from Copil, was lost. The Romanian went on to hold for 3-0.
Now Federer managed re-groove his serve and held to love, but the Copil serving was holding firm, as was the big man’s backhand and energy level. He stayed the course with Federer, as both ran the baseline at speed, and twice Copil picked off a lob winner over the Swiss man’s head. He also saved break point for 4-1, but Federer finally got his breakthrough in the seventh game.
A hold to level the score, 4-4, and Federer began to go for the lines, mixed up the spin, and he also got the roll of the dice. He earned break point on a challenge that showed he had clipped the line by a couple of millimetres. A Copil first serve missed the line by the same margin, as did his next forehand: Three challenges, three points to Federer—and the break.
Federer would serve for the match, yet still the home fans covered their eyes as Copil worked another break point. But three good serves came to the Swiss rescue, and Federer lifted his arms aloft in victory, 6-4, his ninth title in Basel, his 99th overall.
Copil will rise to a career-high 60 come next week, after a tournament where he beat not one but two top-10 players for the first time in his career. His bold and attacking tennis won many fans in Basel, and a standing ovation, even before he addressed them in German.
But the day belonged to Federer, where still, after 20 years, the emotions took a hold: head in hands, he wiped away a tear.
He spoke in German, English and French—“I made a promise that I’d say a few words in French this week, so here we are”—but that is not unusual. He then confessed:
“It was a dream run for me.”
But then, when it comes to Basel, that is not unusual either.
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