It’s 20 years to the day since Roger Federer won his first ATP singles title, beating Julian Boutter in three sets in the final of the 2001 Milan Indoor tournament. While Federer has since added more than 100 more titles to his collection – including 20 Grand Slams – this would be one of only two finals Boutter would reach in his career.
In an interview with Eurosport, Boutter recalls what it was like facing a 19-year-old Federer, how the match could have gone differently, including the umpire failing to spot that the wrong player was serving at the start of the third set, and his relationship with Federer since…
"I'm not bored talking about this match. I'm not asked about it very often, but it's part of the game, and it's fun. Sure, for Roger, that was a key moment. Winning your first title is always very important. Now he has 103, so it was the beginning of a long list. And people always remember more the first title than the second or third or 12th, as long as it's not your first Grand Slam or Masters 1000 of course.
"Around 18 months before the final in Milan, we played in Grenoble, in a Challenger tournament. He was 17 I guess. I was ranked around 100th in the world and he was 150th. But even then there were media members already following Roger. He was 'the new Pete Sampras'. The was a lot of attention around him for such a young kid. He was very nervous then, a bit immature. But when I played him in Milan, he was already not the same. I watched him all week, and he seemed more mature, more focused, less erratic with his attitude.
"He was only 19 when we played in Milan, but I think he was already in some kind of a hurry. He had lost two finals the year before, so he badly wanted to win a tournament. Maybe he needed it even if he was still a teenager. Clearly the pressure was on him, not on me. He was already number 27 in the world; I was ranked around 50. But I was playing good tennis, I loved playing indoors on fast courts. So I was confident.
Julien Boutter reached a career-high No 46 in the world
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"It was a close match. I remember a few things. First, when we came onto the court, people were holding flags of our country and the hymns were played. It was very unusual outside of the Davis Cup so it was very emotional. I broke Roger at the beginning but lost my focus and he broke back and broke again to win the first set.
"It was hard for me but I did not give up. I won the second set on the tie-breaker, I loved tie-breaks and I won all the tie-breaks I played that week. Then, a strange thing occurred: I served first to begin the final set. But Roger should have. It was his turn. Nobody noticed it. Not me, not Roger. The referee, Lars Graf, made a mistake. An incredible mistake in an ATP final!
"Roger broke me and I never came back. It's only, maybe 10 years after that, a friend called me and said: 'Julien, I've just watched your final against Federer. It was not your turn to serve!' It's pretty funny. Nobody told me about that before, but he was right.
Roger Federer with former coach Peter Lundgren in 2001
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"We talked a few times together about that match. I joked with Roger: 'You know Roger, if I had won that final, maybe we would have switched our careers. I would have been you, you would have been me!' It's a good memory to me, it was my first final.
"Roger already had that vision, he was already moving like a cat. And he was very solid from the baseline, more than a guy like Sampras whom he was compared too. Roger learned to play on clay when he was a kid and even if he was, and still is, an offensive player, he's always been very strong from the baseline. That helped him a lot and that's why he had such a good career on clay. Of course, Rafael Nadal eclipsed that because he is a monster, but you could argue Roger is maybe the second best clay-court player of all time.
"A few years ago, with the Moselle Open team, we went to Basel to study what an elite indoor tournament looked like, because we were just newcomers. When we arrived, we saw Federer. I started chatting with him and the first thing that came up in the discussion was not our Milan final but our match in Grenoble. He said: 'I remember when I lost to you in Grenoble!' One colleague who was with me was stunned. The guy is the number one player in the world and he remembers perfectly a match he played when he was 17-years-old and something like 150th in the rankings. That's crazy. But this is who he is.
"In Bercy two or three years ago, I met [Federer's coach] Ivan Ljubicic in the Players' Lounge. Ivan told me: 'Julien, guess what we did last night with Roger? We watched your final in Milan. That was fun.' But it's not surprising. Beyond what he's done for tennis, Roger is probably the number one tennis fan in the world. He just loves tennis. So he watches everything. Challengers, Futures, it's crazy. And he has a great memory of his matches. It helped him a lot."
Federer re-lives his Australian Open highs and lows... including those famous Nadal matches
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