Federer has met his match

2010-07-03 00:00

ROGER Federer is not going to win Wimbledon again. Michael Schumacher is not going to become the fastest driver again. When champions fall, they usually come crashing down. Something is lost in the defeat itself, the aura of invincibility, the terrible desire that had driven them along. After years of domination they can feel themselves slipping and then the game is up.

Bjorn Borg was broken by defeat at the hands of John McEnroe. After years of brilliance, the silent Swede knew he had met his match. In his younger days, before all those titles, he might have roused himself into another titanic effort, might have renewed the battle. But the brash American with the deft hands had caught him at the right moment, at the height of his game, but vulnerable as well, no longer willing to make the sacrifices. Still in his twenties, Borg withdrew and was not seen again in the highest company

McEnroe himself proved to be a great champion. Eras are not ended by minor defeats at the hands of underdogs, but by important losses to major players at significant events. Over the next few years McEnroe fought for supremacy against Jimmy Connors, an equally cranky player whose low, penetrative shots contrasted with his own spin and guile.

Pete Sampras was the next unequivocal tennis champion. He ruled the grass courts, especially, for years, till a young wild-haired and temperamental Swiss fellow called Federer bundled him out of Wimbledon. Sampras was never the same again. He had met a younger, hungrier version of himself and knew it was over.

Now it is Federer’s turn to face hurting defeat, a fate lesser players encounter regularly. After his quarter-final loss in four sets to Thomas Berdych, a 24-year-old colossus from Czechoslovakia, Federer complained about his bad back and a dodgy leg.

He is not the sort to make excuses, otherwise he could not have risen as high or lasted as long. He was merely explaining his poor showing. But the causes ran deeper. In trouble, he went to the well and this time came back empty-handed. He had been two sets down on the opening day of the tournament and had clawed his way back into the match. It was a warning.

Of course, Berdych deserves credit for his superb display. His serve has the same effect on viewers as did the fast bowling of Denis Lillee and Jeff Thompson decades ago. They felt like hiding behind the sofa. The lady calling the centre line was in dire need of a helmet. Throughout the match he sent down thunderbolts bearing the wrath of the gods. No wonder Federer could not find his rhythm. Berdych also produced a remarkable low volley on a vital point. And he is a good enough baseliner to reach the semi-finals of the French Open. In short, he is formidable.

Despite the thumping power of his opponent, though, Federer had his chances and did not take them. The fourth set was painful to behold. At one stage the champion took a 40/0 lead on his opponent’s serve only to be thwarted by a combination of brutal serves and stunted strokes. A priceless chance to get back into the match was wasted. His game was unravelling and his mind faltering.

Federer promptly lost his own serve to put his position in even more peril. Along the way he played several erratic forehands, a risky drop shot and some shaky backhands. Tellingly, too, he allowed a lob to bounce, ducking the opportunity to finish the point with an awkward overhead. In the past he has made the difficult appear easy. Now he was facing the same questions others encounter: “Do I dare?” Doubt counts among the most human of emotions. Certainly it is hard to conquer. Great players crush it every day, and meanwhile appear not to know its name. Clearly the Swiss has made its acquaintance.

Of course, a single defeat after so many glorious victories will not affect Federer’s reputation. All good things come to an end. In any case, his legacy was long ago established. He belongs among the few giants of the game.

Moreover, there has been another factor in Federer’s game that guarantees his standing. Throughout he has been a delight to watch. In that regard he resembles Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne. Do these sportsmen know how much simple pleasure they provide?

Federer has been blessed with both greatness and genius. His greatness lay in his command of strokes and strength of mind. Genius has been expressed in his ability to produce dazzling strokes at critical junctures. And they have been strokes, not shots or blasts. He has been poetry in motion.

Crucially, none of it has been done for show. Gallery pleasers are over-rated. True sportsmen play only to win. And only some of them reach that special place where efficiency and beauty meet.

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