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The Watsons Water Champions Challenge was a women’s tennis exhibition event in Hong Kong that first started in 1999.  It usually took place during the first couple of weeks in January and served as a perfect warm-up tournament ahead of the Australian Open.  From day one, it had been a star-studded event, with Venus Williams playing Steffi Graf in the inaugural final.  Between 2000-2003, players who came to Hong Kong included the likes of Martina Hingis, Anna Kournikova, Jennifer Capriati, Monica Seles, and Elena Dementieva, to name a few.

The one in 2004 was somewhat of a special edition because in an effort to further establish the city’s image as a world-class event capital, especially in the aftermath of the SARS outbreak the previous year, the Hong Kong government injected additional funding to facilitate the staging of an even better show.  It was held under the intimate settings of the 3,600-seat capacity Centre Court at Victoria Park where courtside seats are just a stone’s throw away from the on-court action.  The site remarkably sits on reclaimed land that used to be the original Causeway Bay typhoon shelter built in 1874 to protect local fishermen from the rough waters.

For the first time, ATP Tour players were invited to compete and mixed doubles was also on the cards.  The four women in singles were Venus Williams, the 2003 year-end No. 2 and four-time Grand Slam champion; Russian teen sensation Maria Sharapova, who went on to win Wimbledon later that year; world No. 8 Elena Dementieva; and 9th-ranked Chanda Rubin.  The men’s lineup featured world No. 2 Roger Federer, No. 3 Juan Carlos Ferrero, 2003 French Open finalist Martin Verkerk, and The Beast of Belarus, Max Mirnyi.

Federer had long been touted a generational talent because of his artistry, arsenal of weaponry, and the possession of a majestic all-court game.  His star was already on the rise when he ended Pete Sampras‘ 31-match winning streak at Wimbledon with that breakout win in the last sixteen in 2001.  However, every other major he had contested since his first at Roland Garros 1999 had ended in disappointment.  That is, until he finally captured his first major at Wimbledon in 2003.  Yet, his early 4th round demise at the Australian and US Open against David Nalbandian, and a 1st round defeat at the French to 88th-ranked Luis Horna, resulted in him finishing No. 2 in the 2003 year-end rankings behind US Open champion, Andy Roddick.

So, coming to Hong Kong to kickstart the new season in 2004, the young Swiss still had a lot to prove.  On Friday, he defeated good friend Max Mirnyi and in the final on Sunday will face world No. 3 Juan Carlos Ferrero, who beat French Open finalist, Martin Verkerk, in the other semifinal.  Saturday’s tennis extravaganza fittingly concluded with the mixed doubles where Federer partnered tennis legend Martina Navratilova to defeat The Beast from Belarus, Max Mirnyi, and Venus Williams, 6-4, 6-2.

Final day of the Watsons Water Champions Challenge began with the ladies’ singles final between the new supernova of women’s tennis, Maria Sharapova, and four-time Grand Slam champion, Venus Williams.  The Russian, seemingly not fazed by her elder, more experienced former world No. 1 opponent, entered the stadium in her trademark rouge attire with a look of determination.  She opened the set with a strong service game – the crowd loving every minute – while Venus retaliated with an even bigger one to hold to love.  Down 5-2 at one point in the first, Venus came back to beat Sharapova, 7-5, 6-3.  Despite the temporary setback, the 16-year-old Russian would go on to beat Serena Williams handily and fearlessly for the Wimbledon title just six months later at the All England Club.

Next on court was the battle everyone had been waiting for – No. 2 v No. 3.  French Open winner versus Wimbledon champ.  Mano a mano, a showdown between a pair of Grand Slam champions.

During the pre-match introductions, the MC announced the unveiling of a new line of men’s fragrance from Federer, aptly named Feel The Touch by RFcosmetics.  The Swiss, perhaps a little too laid back than he should have been, lost his serve early in both sets, and he paid the price.   Ferrero, in top form, barely put a foot wrong all match long.  The Spaniard hardly missed a ball, served beautifully, and began to grind down the world No. 2 systematically from the baseline.

Federer did show flashes of brilliance: Diabolically angled cross-court backhands that seemed other worldly, and classic serve and volley play reminiscent of his great Wimbledon run.  Then, he managed to whip the crowd into life again, as he orchestrated a vociferous battle between the East and West side stands.  Deafening cries of “Come on, Roger!” were met with screaming unisons of “Vamos, Ferrero!”.  In the end, Juan Carlos Ferrero, to an ecstatic East stand audience, took the Watsons Water Champions Challenge title with a 6-4, 6-4, victory.

Of course, what transpired in 2004 after Hong Kong was the beginning of a magical run that turned into one of the most amazing stretches in modern men’s tennis history.  First, Federer would win his first Australian Open in a fortnight’s time, assume the world No. 1 ranking for a record 237 weeks, win his second Wimbledon, and capture the US Open.  That year, he finished with eleven titles, while a young Rafael Nadal captured his first ATP Tour title at Sopot.

Between 2004 and 2008, Roger Federer won five successive US Opens, a feat unmatched by any player in the Open Era.  From 2003 to 2007, he also won the Wimbledon title five times, a record only matched by Bjorn Borg.  No other tennis player has won two separate Grand Slams five consecutive times.

In 2006, 2007, and 2009, Roger Federer reached all four Grand Slam finals in one year, a feat no other male tennis player has managed to duplicate till this day.  Federer won the Australian, Wimbledon, and US Open in the same year three times in 2004, 2006, and 2007.  He also reached a record 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals, stretching from the 2005 Wimbledon to the US Open in 2007.

In his fourth consecutive French Open final in 2009, he beat Rafa’s conqueror, Robin Soderling, to capture the Coupe des Mousquetaires at long last.  This prized win completed the career Grand Slam for the Swiss, equalling Andre Agassi’s feat in 1999, though Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic would later match this accomplishment.  In men’s tennis history, only Don Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (1962 & 1969) have managed to win all four majors in the same calendar year.  However, Federer’s triumph at Roland Garros had extra meaning, for it equalled Pete Sampras’ record 14 majors.  Then, two weeks later at Wimbledon, with Sampras, Borg, McEnroe, and Laver looking on, he beat Andy Roddick to claim the record-breaking 15th Grand Slam singles.

He added five more majors at the tail end of his career, including an improbable comeback in 2017 in which he took both the Australian and Wimbledon, and then claimed his 20th Slam in 2018 at Melbourne Park. He’s won a total of 103 tour singles titles, a record six year-end championships, a Hopman Cup, a Davis Cup, an Orange Bowl, etc.   One title has eluded him to this day, however.

The Olympic gold in men’s singles.

Kafelnikov, Agassi, and Rafa, they all have one each.  Andy Murray, on the other hand, has two, but Federer and Djokovic have none.

Federer competed in the Olympic Games four straight times.  Ranked 36th and unseeded in Sydney 2000, he lost to Tommy Haas in the semifinals and then went down in the bronze medal game against 62nd-rankedArnaud Di Pasquale of France, 7–6(5), 6–7(7), 6–3.  Sampras and Agassi did not play, while seeds (1)Marat Safin, (4)Lleyton Hewitt, (7)Tim Henman, (9)Nicholas Keifer, (10)Franco Squillari, (12)Marcelo Rios, (14)Wayne Ferreira, (15)Albert Costa, and (16)Michael Chang all went out in the first round.

In Athens 2004, Federer came in as the hottest player on Tour and the undisputed No. 1 in the world.  However, in a huge upset, the favourite was bundled out by world No. 74 Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic in the second round, 4–6, 7–5, 7–5, in which he struggled with his serve and coughed up far too many unforced errors.  In Beijing 2008, Federer again came in as the world No. 1.  In the quarterfinals, he faced American world No. 7 James Blake, a player he has never lost to in all eight previous meetings.  Never even lost a set.  This time round, Blake triumphed in straight sets, 6-4, 7-6(2).  After winning perhaps one of the best matches in his life, Blake then lost to Fernando Gonzalez in the semis and then to Novak Djokovic in the bronze medal game to go home empty-handed.  Federer did claim his first Olympic medal when he partnered Stan Wawrinka to beat Thomas Johansson and Simon Aspelin of Sweden to claim the gold in men’s doubles.

In London 2012, Federer again arrived as the world No. 1 and the Olympics is being contested on the same grass courts he had triumphed over world No. 4 Andy Murray just 2 weeks prior at SW19.  However, after beating Juan Martin del Potro in a semifinal encounter that lasted 4 hours and 26 minutes, with the third set going 19-17, he lost tamely to Murray in the gold medal game, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4.  Since the Olympic Tennis Event was reinstated as a medal sport in Seoul 1988, no current world No. 1 has ever won the gold medal in men’s singles.

Federer never contested another Olympics thereafter.

Following that 2004 defeat to Juan Carlos Ferrero in Hong Kong, Federer said with a pleasant smile: “This has been an excellent tournament, so smoothly run.  A perfect preparation for the Australian Open.  I really hope that I can come back next year.”

It’s a date, Roger.

(Photo: Watsons Water Champions Challenge 2004)