Wimbledon classic

Print edition : August 15, 2008

Roger Federers genius gives way before Rafael Nadals iron will as the Spaniard bridges the clay-grass divide.

THE greatest ever final provided a glorious climax to Wimbledon 2008. The 4-hour 48-minute epic battle between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal was of such intensity and quality that it captivated not only tennis fans but the whole sporting world. Nadal entered the pantheon of tennis gods and extended his empire from slow clay to fast grass. The media have run out of superlatives, and for once, there is not a single voice of dissent. In fading light, Federer fell from his pedestal but not before he had given his all.

Nadals greatest strength is not in his muscles but in his iron will. He met Federers bursts of genius head on and never gave in. In the end Federer could no longer maintain the level demanded to subdue the Spaniard. It was sad to see Federers fading aura. At the same time, one has to be joyful about Nadals great achievement of bridging the clay-grass divide.

Both are great champions who have enriched the game with their genius. They took the contest beyond Kiplings lines: If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same. As the simple, respectful Nadal paid tribute to Federer, one thought of another line from Kiplings poem: To honour while you strike him down, the foe that comes with fearless eyes.

Earlier in the championships, Andy Murrays snarling roars and biceps-flexing must have been like a sonic boom for the slumbering Kipling. The decibel level was depicted in a cartoon on the front page of the London Telegraph: Mr and Mrs Lion are sitting in the African veldt, and Mrs Lion says, You dont have to roar so loud, this is not the Centre Court!

Federer was magnificent in defeat; he lost his crown but the crowds deafening applause showed that it had him in its heart. It was a unique occasion where the fraying fabric of sporting behaviour was reinforced and rejuvenated.

One wonders whether Federer can recover from the blows of losing the Australian and Wimbledon titles and being crushed in the French Open final. He stated that he would make a comeback. With his body clock loaded with the mileage of eight years of professional tennis, for the last 250 weeks of which he has been ranked No. 1, who can argue that his mental and physical reserves have not diminished? This, compounded by an attack of glandular fever, will really make the comeback very difficult. Time takes its toll imperceptibly but slowly and surely. Nadal, only 22, with his vigorous spendthrift style of play may not last as long as Federer. There is only one serious challenge to Nadal in the next year or so Novak Djokovic of Serbia. His loss to Marat Safin, the giant serial racket smasher from Russia, in the second round was surprising. Djokovic seemed tired and listless, while Safin struck a purple patch. The Russian lost to Federer in the quarter-finals in a one-sided encounter. At 28, Safin, with two Grand Slam titles, cannot expect much in the future.

There were many thrilling, hard-fought and long matches; four in particular Richard Gasquet vs Murray, Rainer Schuettler vs Arnaud Clement, Mario Ancic vs Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez vs Marcos Baghdatis stay in mind. Out of this lot, Murray and Ancic seem to have the scope to be considered Grand Slam prospects. But the hottest prospect is Ernests Gulbis of Latvia. The 6 3 19-year-old has a smooth game, which purrs like a Rolls Royce engine. His four-set loss to Nadal in the second round was close and of breathtaking quality. Gulbis seems to be in a class above the others and, if he stays on track, will be a serious challenger for the top places in the rankings.

Murray, the British hope from Scotland, has all the shots. His bizarre flexing of the biceps testify garishly to his physical strength, but it is the mind that needs to be shored up to a devotional focus. Without that, his support team of seven and the million or more pounds spent on coaching will be of no avail. The crushing burden of British expectation is the cross he has to bear to victory. It may prove to be too much for him.

The womens events were dominated by the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. In a sibling clash in the final, the sisters fought hard and produced a match of high quality before Venus prevailed in two close sets. It was Venus fifth title. She is equal if not better on grass than any of the other Wimbledon greats. She is tall and very strong, and with a delightful, bubbling personality. She produced the fastest ever service at Wimbledon for a woman, at a reported 127 mph (204 kilometres per hour). Unlike Serena, she does not have bulging biceps but has a beautifully sculpted wiry frame and moves like a dream. Even at 28, one cannot rule her out from future titles at Wimbledon.

Casualties in the womens event seemed to be like a terror strike. The top four seeds, Ana Ivanovic, Maria Sharapova, Jelena Jankovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova, played dismal tennis and were beaten in the earlier rounds. Two patched-up past champions, Lindsay Davenport and Amelie Mauresmo, failed to turn the clock back and also lost early. Things look bad for womens tennis.

With the sudden retirement of Justine Henin and, earlier, of Kim Clijsters and the poor performance of the top seeds, there seems little chance of an early revival. Especially so because with the exception of Kuznetsova, the other seeds lost to low-ranking players, not to bright new stars with a future. Ivanovic lost to the 133-ranked Chinese doubles specialist Jie Zheng, Sharapova to 154-ranked fellow Russian Alla Kudryavtseva, and Jankovic to the 31-year-old Thai Tamarine Tanasugarn, an old-timer considered unkindly by most to be cannon fodder for the higher ranked.

Zheng brought cheer to 100 million Chinese hearts and, with her behaviour on court, pride to Asian culture. She donated all her winnings to the victims of the recent disastrous earthquake in China. Her support team sat impassively in their box, occasionally clapping for her with restraint and dignity. A welcome relief from the belligerent jack-in-the-box jump-ups.

The 5 4 24-year-old Zheng deserves the highest praise. She has flattish, consistent ground shots, takes the ball on the rise, and moves beautifully. Her impassive look hides great tenacity and mental strength. In future years, she will be a trendsetter in Asian tennis and a pioneer in Asian tennis history. Tanasugarns performance in reaching the quarter-finals was heart-warming. One has to pay tribute to the great effort and persistence with which she has kept plugging away. Perfectly behaved, she is always smiling but never lacking in effort. Thailand has contributed greatly to the Asian presence in world tennis.

It is time to pay tribute to the Williams sisters, their father, mother and the whole family. Their story is much more than a fairy tale. From a violent Los Angeles suburb, where it is reported they had to duck bullets while practising, their father has brought them to the pinnacle of the game. Richard Williams has a 100 per cent hit record: two great champions from the two daughters he coached! Between them, they have won seven of the nine Wimbledon womens titles since 2000, apart from many other Slams, and more will surely come. Their secret lies, amongst many other things, in their natural athleticism, never-say-die attitude, and family support.

They navigated a path fraught with an avalanche of missiles and won. Venus put it nicely when she said, I dont have anything to prove. I am very happy and blessed in my life.

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