Millennium Post

Federer was 'great draw' on 1999 Wimbledon debut, says legend's first ever opponent

Prague: The 17-year-old youth on the other side of the Wimbledon net looked like an easy match-up for Jiri Novak, but the five-setter made the grizzled Czech rethink the man who would become "exceptional and an icon".

Novak could breathe a sigh of relief as the scoreboard said he had beaten a certain Roger Federer of Switzerland 6-3, 3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 after two hours and 18 minutes in the first round in 1999.

Federer made his Wimbledon debut that day 20 years ago but few imagined that the youngster would eventually go on to be widely regarded as the greatest player of all time.

"I was in the top 100, I had no problem qualifying for Wimbledon and I played against Roger who was a junior and a wild card," Novak said.

"I was thinking — what a great draw, I wasn't too good on grass so I thought this was a good chance to win a match," added Novak, who was 24 at the time.

He bowed out of that edition of Wimbledon in the second round, seen off by American Todd Martin in straight sets, and was never to make it past the third round at the All England Club.

Federer, the world junior number one in 1999 but 103 in the ATP rankings during Wimbledon, crashed out in round one in three of his first four appearances at the tournament.

However, he made people sit up and take notice when he famously knocked out Pete Sampras on his way to the 2001 quarter-finals.

Federer then won five Wimbledon titles in a row, and eight overall, his last coming in 2017.

"I thought he wasn't bad but during the match I never thought he could achieve what he has," said Novak of a player who has gone on to win 20 majors and 102 titles in total.

"It was a tough moment, the grass used to be much faster so we didn't play much and I didn't like that, I kept struggling for rhythm."

"Then I met him at other tournaments, on concrete and clay, and I could see he's good," added Novak, who won seven ATP singles titles — four on clay and three on hardcourt — and climbed to fifth in the world in 2002.

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