Roger the Great

Published : Aug 14, 2009 00:00 IST

ROGER FEDERER'S LEAP of joy after winning Wimbledon 2009.-STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS

ROGER FEDERER'S LEAP of joy after winning Wimbledon 2009.-STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS

ROGER FEDERERS leap of joy at the moment of his victory at Wimbledon 2009 sent him soaring into another world. This win, his 15th in Grand Slam finals, took him past Pete Sampras record of 14. In his wake, Federer leaves a trail of broken records too numerous to recount. A buoyant Federer wore to the post-match news conference a T-shirt that read There is no finish line, and Sampras remarked that Federer could go on to win 17 or even 18 Grand Slam titles. If that happens, Federer will possibly stay in his celestial orbit forever.

The four-hour-18-minute final featured the longest deciding set in the 122-year-old history of the Grand Slams. Unlike last years final between Federer and Rafael Nadal, where breathtaking baseline exchanges made it the best final ever, the 2009 final was service-dominated and proved to be a test of stamina and a titanic battle of wills. If Andy Roddick, leading 6-2 in the second-set tie-breaker, had won one single point of the four set points he held, it would have given him a two-sets-to-love lead and pushed Federer into a hole almost impossible to clamber out of. Most heartbreaking was the high backhand volley Roddick misjudged because of a gusting wind when Federer was off court. Also, just one ace from Roddick in the tie-breaker would have done the trick. But it was not to be. The toe-to-toe service slugfest in the final set went on until 14-15 before the rugged American wilted, lost his service and made three unforced errors owing to fatigue.

It must be said that Federer had more than his share of luck. His victory in the French Open and Nadals absence because of injury boosted his confidence and cleared his path to glory.

In the avalanche of accolades that swamped the tennis world and the greatest ever tag endorsed by Sampras, Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg, all legends of the game, Roddicks performance was lost. Laver, however, said it was better not to dwell too much on the greatest-of-all-time debate and to let two vastly different eras be singularly defined. Live in the here and the now, he said, a view with which I agree. Sampras and Borg may well have felt the same but perhaps could not express themselves for fear of being misunderstood.

It was sad to see Roddick with a haunted, bewildered look on his face he had given just everything and fallen short by a mere whisker. His Herculean effort did not receive the acclaim it deserved. Roddicks improvement has been phenomenal. He has curbed his impatience, cut down on unforced errors and developed a winning, down-the-line backhand. He lost 15 pounds (6.8 kilograms) in Spartan training. He would never have survived his earlier matches with the extra weight. One must salute not only his effort but his exemplary behaviour after a devastating loss.

Federers charisma is far beyond the No. 1 ranking. In my 60 years in tennis, I have never seen such a wave of adulation and goodwill for a player. People love him for his dignity, humility, quick smile and relaxed behaviour both on and off court. Laver suggested one should watch his footwork on court. Federer seems to levitate as he moves smoothly between points, ballet-like. He never seems to be off balance; in fact, balance is the pivot of Federers game. To hit accurately and powerfully, one must have perfect balance. The power in Federers game comes through leverage and saving. Unlike Nadal, muscle use is minimal.

Another Himalayan achievement of Federers is that he was able to win his Grand Slam in half the time Sampras took.

Federers service action is poetry in motion. It is impossible to tell from his ball throw-up where he is going to serve as the throw is always at the same place. The service is directed to a particular spot at the moment of impact by the racket head. No wonder then that though Federers average service speed was 118 miles (190 kilometres) per hour against Roddicks 127 mph (204 km/h), he served 50 aces against Roddicks 27.

Federers 237-week stint as world number one, with more than 800 matches, highlighted the miracle that is the human body when properly prepared and taken care of. He took physical fitness to levels beyond all barriers, retaining his razor-like sharpness in the face of the constant buffeting and violent attacks of the very best sportsmen in the world. His passion, discipline and dedication are such that one could call Federer the tennis yogi from the Swiss Alps.

Andy Murray, seeded No. 3 and carrying the baton of British hopes, was the short-priced 5/2 second favourite of the bookies. His victory in a stirring match against the 19th seed, Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland, under the new 1,000-ton 100-million retractable roof lit up British hopes. Tim Henman-mania was replaced by a feverish Murray-mania as the Scot stormed through former French Open champion and wild card Juan Carlos Ferrero in straight sets to set up what was thought to be a very winnable match, against Roddick in the semi-finals.

Roddick or should I say the new Roddick, patient, lighter, stronger played a tactically brilliant match to humiliate Murray in four sets. Once again, British hopes were crushed, and an almost silent centre court reluctantly gave the American his due. A blitz of 75 per cent first serve bullets were augmented by a strategy of avoiding playing wide-angle shots, which stopped the 63 (1.9 metres) Scot from unleashing winners off both flanks when taken wide. Roddick closed down the angles and kept his shots straight and down the middle. Murrays low percentage of first serves and lack of depth on the second service brought about his downfall. Murray has matured and made great improvement since last year. He is poised to win a Grand Slam title and will be a strong challenger to Federer in coming Grand Slams.

The highly rated Croat Novak Djokovic was disappointing. A natural mimic, he has been amusing audiences with impersonations of other leading players and seems to have lost focus. His behaviour, body language and petulance are not that of a champion. If he can get over it and regain his focus and concentration, he will be right up there with Murray and Federer.

Any article on Wimbledon 2009 would be incomplete without a mention of the story of Tommy Haas of Germany and Lleyton Hewitt of Australia. Haas lost to Federer in a close three-set match in the semi-finals. Earlier, in the French Open, Haas, with his serve to follow, led by two sets to love and had a point for a 5-3 lead in the third. So much for being a player of top five quality. The story of Haas and Hewitt is about the triumph of the human spirit. Sadly, there is no prize for it. There should be. One must consider that watching them millions may be inspired to fight back and tackle their problems with renewed vigour.

Hass bad luck story extends back to 2003, with a series of accidents and surgical operations, crowned by a pull-out from Wimbledon when he twisted his ankle by stepping on a ball during the knock-up. Hewitt came back from hip replacement surgery in late 2008. Most people would be convalescing, but Hewitt, with shouts of come on, overcame the trauma of an artificial hip and dredged his reserves of stamina with unbound resolve, came back from two sets to love down to defeat Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic 6-2 in the fifth. Then, he pushed Roddick to an encounter, which was decided at 6-4 in the fifth set in a punishing quarter-final.

The ladies world at Wimbledon continues to be firmly in the grasp of the Williams sisters. Since 2000, they have won the singles title eight times: Venus five times and Serena, who won this year, three times. This years final was the fourth Wimbledon final in which they met. The quality of their tennis has always been very good and their matches well contested, but the sibling rivalry is never convincing. It was like firing blanks. In the past, the rivalries between Christ Evert and Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf and Monica Seles produced breathtaking encounters that made the ladies events at times more attractive than the mens events. The ladies event this year was as flat as a doormat.

The Williams ploughed through the field of challengers, 20 with names ending in ova and seven with names ending in eva, without losing a set until Serena met Elena Dementieva, the fourth seed, in the semi-finals. This proved to be the best ladies match of the tournament, with Serena prevailing 8-6 in the final set. I was astonished to see that Dementieva, who had a weird service action and was prone to double faults, had managed to change her service action to a normal, classic style. She even served some aces in her match against Serena. The 511 (1.8 m) Dementieva has solid ground shots and is very competitive. A very good mover, she could wrest the No. 1 ranking from the temperamental Dinara Safina.

Maria Sharapova was nowhere near her best after surgery on her shoulder. If she is able to get back to top form, she would be a serious contender for the Grand Slams and the top spot in womens rankings.

Sania Mirza, after a tough and creditable first round victory against Anna-Lena Groenefeld, was swept aside easily by the 28th seed, the talented Sorana Cirstea from Romania.

Like Alfred Tennysons brook, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi seem to go on and on. For years, they have been winning mens and mixed doubles titles in Grand Slams. At Wimbledon, they have won the mixed doubles four times and the mens doubles once and have been in the finals of the mixed doubles twice. This year, Paes and Cara Black lost in the final round to Mark Knowles and Anna-Lena Groenefeld in straight sets.

Paes and Bhupathi have been the sum total of Indian tennis for two decades and have established a rare regard for sportsmanship and skill at the highest international levels for our nation. It is time for the nation to salute them and recognise their great contribution.

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