This week, high-level tennis is coming back to Brest, for a Challenger tournament. From 1988 to 2002 already, the French town had hosted a professional tournament of this level. Peculiarity: in 1999, it crowned a great hope of tennis, junior World No. 1 the previous year, who won there his first professional career title - the only Challenger -before an irresistible success story. His name was Roger Federer. Story.
"Hi, it's Roger." Journalist for the Telegram of Brest, Ronan Tanguy paused when he saw "an odd number" appearing on his cell phone that day of December 2009 and then heard this unmistakable voice for any tennis fan. Six months of vain attempts to obtain an interview with Roger Federer found there an outcome unexpected to say the least: After a polite but firm refusal of the Swiss' player management in July - "You see, Roger receives so many requests from around the world" - and then the promise of an interview snatched from his agent himself, Tony Godsick, but which fell through following the unexpected elimination of the world tennis icon from his opening match at the Masters 1000 of Paris-Bercy against Julien Benneteau, it was enough for the journalist of the Breton regional daily "to come to terms with it". When it's not meant to be...
But the subject for which he was calling Roger Federer raised his interest at the highest point: the idea was to discuss his first professional title, won ten years earlier, at the Brest Challenger. Then once the season ended, the Masters of London in the rear-view mirror, the man who had just completed for the fifth time a year on the throne of world No. 1 picked up the phone himself and, while he was on holiday, explained to his interlocutor at the 19, rue Jean-Mace in Brest how "this success is more important" to him that "it is for the media”: "The media quickly forget, unfortunately, especially with all the successes that I had later. But still, I had to start by playing these small tournaments... At first, when you win, it's a great moment, you remember it forever. It's maybe at the beginning of your career that you experience the most dramatic moments, because you really want to do well, you want to enter the Top 100 so much, you want to show who you are, how well you can play tennis... So for a young player, winning a Challenger like that, it's really important."
Threatened by Lionel Roux
When he arrived in Brest in late 1999, Roger Federer was only a strong hope of world tennis. His lap times were good - 66th in the world, semi-finals in Vienna, quarterfinals in Basel, Rotterdam and Marseille, accompanied by a victory over the world No. 5 Carlos Moya in this tournament - but they weren't as impressive as those of Lleyton Hewitt, a year earlier or Marat Safin and other aspirants eagerly awaited champions. "When he arrived here, we knew him a little, yes," remembers François Derrien, then director of the event. “He had been junior world No. 1 the previous year. We suspected that he was good, at least in the footsteps of Pioline, Krajicek Kucera or other players who had already won here previously. But, when we saw him rise in power round after round, we realized that this was not just a good one. He was a phenomenon. Everything he was capable of doing, he was above the others, above everything that we've seen before. Yet Henri Leconte also came to play here." Seeded No. 1 in Brittany - the No. 2 was the Swedish veteran Magnus Gustafsson, briefly passed through the Top 10 in 1991 - Federer started his tournament slowly, by a scare against the French Lionel Roux, 191st in the ATP (6/3 4/6 6/4). He didn’t lose another set of the week. In less time than it took the Swiss to remember the identity of his victims ten years later - and he has a good memory, mentioning four of them in one go! - Rodolphe Gilbert (6/4 6/3), the wild card Michael Llodra (6/3 6/3) and Martin Damm (6/3 7/6) were all defeated quite easily on the road to the final. On the Sunday, he met one of the greatest server of his time, who would cause him some problems later, even when Federer was already Top 10, around 2002-2003: Max Mirnyi. But that day, the Belarusian was defeated in straight sets (7/6 6/3). "I felt in great shape and I remember having achieved a perfect performance against a very dangerous player indoors," said the winner of Wimbledon in junior the previous year. He then won his first tournament with the pros, him who hadn't played many Futures - "I played three, for three defeats in qualifying," he laughed.
"It seemed as easy for him than for Pete Sampras"
Once the match point won, he ran towards his box to share the victory with his coach and trainer Peter Carter, an Australian who died in 2002 in a car accident. "I rarely, if ever actually thank my coaches after a victory," said the record holder of Grand Slam victories to the journalist. “I never climb into the stands to embrace my friends and family. But in Brest, I quickly ran to him. I shook his hand, as my first title was still something special. I wanted to show this. Peter knew me since I was 10 years old. We came a long way together." On this road that led him to 17 Grand Slam tournaments, 6 Masters and other 302 weeks spent at the first place in the world’s rankings, the Brest's Challenger represents a significant milestone in the tennis adventure of the Swiss. And for people who have seen him play on the courts that week, the clear visual impression made by Federer didn't dissipated with time: "I will always remember how flexible he was, aerial even" remembers Francois Derrien sixteen years later. «Icing on the cake, he was very kind outside the court, not cocky at all. Discreet, even. It was on the courts that that he left a mark. With him, tennis seemed so easy. As easy for him than for Pete Sampras." But Sampras would certainly never have taken on his vacation time to call a journalist in France and reminisce with him the very first professional victory in a long series.