A Swiss star emerges

Published : Aug 01, 2003 00:00 IST

Wimbledon champion, 2003, Roger Federer. - JEFF J MITCHELL/REUTERS

Wimbledon champion, 2003, Roger Federer. - JEFF J MITCHELL/REUTERS

Roger Federer's Wimbledon triumph underscores his enormous talent and gives men's tennis a shot in the arm. India had plenty to cheer about in the form of Leander Paes and Sania Mirza.

As fate turned the pages of a memorable championship, it unfolded a fascinating fortnight. The tone for the 2003 Wimbledon championships was set by the shock first round defeat of Lleyton Hewitt, the 21year-old reigning champion, by the 6 feet 10 inch Croat Ivo Karlovic. A humble qualifier, Karlovic was sharing a room with his coach in a grubby Earl's Court Hotel. His move to a luxury hotel with liveried service and a luxurious king-sized bed, which did not require him to prop up his feet on suitcases at the foot of the bed to sleep at night, was the endearing stuff that fairy tales are made of. Hewitt's loss threw the top half of the draw wide open and raised the hopes of young aspirants such as Andy Roddick and Roger Federer. In the end, the 21-year-old Swiss Roger Federer, his emotions masked in oriental calm during the match, harnessed his enormous talent and played flawlessly in the final rounds to win his first Grandslam title.

A cloudburst of superlatives was immediately showered on him and he was equated to greats such as Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras. Such comparisons are premature and it remains to be seen if Federer can sustain the brilliance he exhibited at this year's Wimbledon. With his abundant natural talent and superb all-court skills, Federer is a joy to watch. He has every conceivable shot in the book, which he plays with smooth, refreshing abandon. With perfect balance, he moves silently, almost catlike, between shots; his genius lies in his ability to find time and create space when there is seemingly none. No wonder John McEnroe said about Federer: "He's got it all".

One must shed a tear for Mark Philippoussis, the 26-year-old Australian runner-up. He returned to form after three career-threatening knee operations, the trauma of his father's cancer and a penchant for fast living that seemed to affect his focus. Philippousis found a new, calm resolve as he thumped aces and booming ground shots, which left the charismatic Andre Agassi, the big-serving German Alexander Popp and the tenacious Frenchman Sebastian Grosjean in his wake. Two exhausting five setters, against Agassi and Popp took a heavy toll on Philippoussis' physical and mental reserves. The crestfallen Aussie said in an interview that a couple of points in the first set tie-breaker against Federer, particularly his double fault at 4-5, could well have made all the difference. Philippousis' vulnerability to injury will make it difficult for him to get close to the summit in the future.

Roddick, the 20-year-old American hopeful, tipped by many to win the championships, including this writer, brought a much-needed youthful fragrance to the Centre Court. It is an exhilarating experience to see his enthusiasm, intensity and power. Roddick pushes his opponents on the backfoot with his lethal serve and power-packed forehand. Wise counsel, experience and maturity will make him a strong Grand Slam contender in the future . Roddick's new coach Brad Gilbert, who turned Agassi's career around in 1994, should be able to hone his game and help take him to the top.

No article on Wimbledon would be complete without mention of the British hope Tim Henman. One of the best grass court players in the world, Henman is burdened by the high expectations of an almost hysterical nation. His fragile self-belief cracks under pressure and inhibits him from attacking at crucial times. At the highest levels of the game this is the difference between defeat and victory. British tennis prestige lies dormant at Gate Number 5 of Wimbledon, where the statue of the great Fred Perry, who achieved a hat-trick of Wimbledon wins in 1934, 1935 and 1936, stands elegantly. Perhaps, Henman will find space at Gate Number 5 some day.

The Williams sisters re-established their superiority emphatically. Serena Williams soared over the field and retained the women's singles title with relative ease. Jennifer Capriati and Serena's sister Venus were the only two to win a set against her. Serena is destined to take her place among all-time greats such as Martina Navaratilova, Steffi Graf and Margaret Court. The challenge of the Belgians, Justin Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters fizzled out on the fast grass. One must applaud the progress made by the Belgian girls over the last year. On slower surfaces, both Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters pose a threat to the Williams sisters. If Venus recovers from her injuries, she could well challenge Serena for the top spot.

Five Russian women in the last 16 is an indication of the future of women's tennis. Intensely competitive, tough and hungry, they will emerge as serious contenders. The talented 16-year-old Russian Maria Sharapova, a wild card entry, proved her mettle by defeating the 11th seed Jelena Dokic before losing to fellow countrywoman Svetlana Kuznetsova in the fourth round.

The two Indian flag-bearers, Leander Peas and Mahesh Bhupathi, now ploughing their lonely furrows, continue to thrill fans with their fine play and exemplary behaviour. Leander, partnered the 46-year-old legend, Martina Navratilova, to win the mixed doubles title. Leander's superb play was, however, overshadowed by Martina's presence and her historic achievement - she equalled Billie Jean King's record of 20 Wimbledon titles. George Vecsey wrote in The New York Times (July 7, 2003): "Paes is a certified doubles expert, ranked 11th on the men's tour, who combines agility and power with an enthusiasm that lit up centre court like a late afternoon sunbeam." Bhupathi, partnered by the Belarusian Max Mirnyi, who is nicknamed "The Beast", fell short of the men's doubles title after defeating Paes and David Rikl in the semifinals. Defending champions Todd Woodbridge and Jonas Bjorkman won cleverly with successful interceptions and strong service returns at crucial moments.

An extremely happy, unexpected happening was an Indian victory in the girls doubles. Sania Mirza partnered by Alisa Kleybanova of Russia defeated the top seeds in the first round and went on to win the title. Great credit must go to Sania for her perseverance and hard work to achieve such high levels. She is the first Indian woman to win a Grand Slam event. For India, two titles at Wimbledon 2003 is definitely something to rejoice at.

Wimbledon 2003 threw up a radiant, young champion, Roger Federer. His talent will light up a stagnant tennis world for years to come. With Roddick waiting in the wings, the future of men's tennis has received a much-needed shot in the arm.

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