A little more artistry

2013-08-31 00:00

THE argument of those who want him to retire is that he is beginning to sully his legacy as the greatest tennis player of all time.

There is no doubt that the Swiss maestro is not the player he was. Quite clearly, he is not as quick about the court as he was even a year ago, when knowledgeable critics were saying that he had lost a yard of pace as though he was an ageing fast bowler. Certainly, some of his better opponents are hitting the ball harder than his rivals did during his prime. Even so, it is difficult to imagine him being beaten so easily down the wings of a tennis court in the days when he was garnering major titles with the ease of picking ripe fruit.

The majestic serve is no longer capable of bailing him out of tight spots against those ranked ahead of him and even, occasionally, against lower ranked players who were once dispatched with ease. His second serve is now perceived as an area of weakness that is jumped upon by all his opponents. This has put more pressure on his famed first serve, which consequently finds its mark less regularly than in the halcyon years.

Federer’s graceful backhand has always been regarded as a weakness that can be attacked and unlocked by his closest rivals. At his best, he was able to find a way to deflect these assaults, because his serve was all but invulnerable. He would wait patiently for a poor service game from his opponent whereupon he would pounce, break serve and win the match.

It was watching Federer find a way that was enthralling about his tennis and part of his genius. Time and again, his position in a match seemed precarious almost to the point of being hopeless. However, he was able to seize on a moment of doubt and translate it into a shift of momentum with the speed of a leopard stalking its prey.

Of course, there was more to his tennis than an ability to win tight matches in important tournaments. His graceful movement that disguised his speed about the court has always been one of the wonders of modern tennis. One could be entranced just by watching his feet and ignoring the passage of the ball.

One of the more idiotic remarks by Kevin Pietersen was that “footwork is irrelevant in the art of batting”. He must have little idea then of the reason why he is not half the batsman that Don Bradman and Garfield Sobers were, and how much Federer’s dazzling footwork has contributed to his reputation as the greatest of all tennis players.

Federer’s feet may not move about the court as quickly as they once did, but he remains the most aesthetic and visually pleasing player in the game. He is still the player that tennis fans want to watch. His mid-afternoon first round match in the first round of this U.S. Open was a sell-out. No other player in the tournament commands such attention.

Part of Federer’s appeal now is that his fans know his time is running low. They understand only too well that he will soon be gone forever and that, when his time is irrevocably over, tennis itself will revert to a sport that is less interesting and more brutal. The future of the game lies with two-metre giants whose games are based on unreturnable serves and enough ability to win the increasingly inevitable tie breaks.

It is not for his fans nor the pundits to call time on Federer’s career. It is his choice and his choice alone. One of the differences between Federer and someone like Andre Agassi is that Roger loves playing tennis. He loves its challenges and whilst he may not enjoy defeat he does not fear it.

He still loves his ability to produce the kind of tennis that saw him win the first set of his most recent match against Nadal, and come closer to beating the great Spaniard than anyone else since Wimbledon. He loves the sort of challenge that was posed by Tommy Haas, who was all over him for a set and a half during an early round of the same tournament. It gave him immense satisfaction to find a way past Haas when all thought he was doomed.

There is no doubt that his lower ranking will disturb him if only because his path to grand slam semi-finals is more difficult. John McEnroe once said that the difference between number five and number one was bigger than the difference between 10 and a hundred. Federer will know that, but he is undaunted by the greater challenges.

He knows that he will be a long time retired and that when it’s over, nothing else in his life will replace the thrill of being a top player in the game that he loves. His life after tennis will be fulfilling and hopefully deeply satisfying. However, the peaks of it will never match the glory-busting moments of winning Wimbledon, or even beating a lower ranked player who had, like Haas at Cincinatti, temporarily got the better of him.

Federer is too smart to overstay his welcome on the ATP tour. He will not subject himself to a prolonged and sad diminution of his once extraordinary powers. He will play for as long as he can still produce, if only fleetingly, the grace and artistry that has bewitched the tennis world for over a decade.

He has often evinced a desire to play in the 2016 Olympics, but my guess is that he will allow himself a farewell tour next year, which will give us all time to savour the fading of a wondrous talent.

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