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Monday, July 6, 2009

Federer feels the warm hand of history

Photo Titled Smiling Roger
Roger Federer smiles with his trophy after his sixth Wimbledon title.
There was standing room only in the media room at 8pm, and whispers were already going around. “I will if you will,” was the gist of it. Protocol had already been broken half an hour earlier when Andy Roddick was sportingly applauded when his press conference ended.

Journalists should by definition be impartial and applause is frowned upon as unseemly in any media room for this very reason. Here, however, everyone seemed to realise that they were in the presence of greatness. The fact that Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras – with 16 titles on the grass of SW19 between them – had been in the royal box that afternoon confirmed it, and when the man who had just broken Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles walked into the room, the press room broke out into applause.

364 days and 21 hours previously, Roger Federer had walked into that same room a broken man. On that occasion, he had been on the wrong end of an epic five-set final, losing “his” Wimbledon crown to his nemesis Rafael Nadal. “Write what you want,” he had said at the time, his eyes red and stinging with despair. He said that it hurt far more than his painful defeat at Nadal’s hands in the 2008 French Open. “Losing in Paris was nothing. This is a disaster,” he said.

A year on and tonight his eyes were again stinging, this time through sheer emotional exhaustion. “Tennis is cruel sometimes. I went through some five setters in Grand Slam finals too and ended up losing. It's hard,” the man back on top of the world rankings said.

“He [Roddick] did great. He's not going to let his head hang down. He's going to come back strong and play great in the States. I think it's one of the best matches we played against each other. I really thought I had to play my very, very best to come through.”

Despite the enormity of Federer’s achievement, the name “Nadal” almost inevitably cropped up during the conference. “That's the way it goes, you know,” he said of the Spaniard’s absence. “Everybody expected Murray to be in the finals and he wasn't there. It's not the (fault) of the one who wins at the end. Of course I would have loved to play him again, but then again I've also played Andy now in three great Wimbledon finals, and he deserves the credit too for playing so well. “

Returning to the subject of the absent Spaniard, Federer said: “You never know how he would have played, but it's sad he couldn't even give it a fair chance. He had the injury, and tennis moves very quickly. I'm happy at least that I became No. 1 in the world by winning the tournament, not just by him not playing at all, or me playing decent or someone else playing decent and getting to No. 1. That's not the way it's supposed to be. You win big matches, big tournaments – that's how you get back to it.”

Federer’s magnum opus was made all the more special by the presence of two people in the Centre Court crowd – his heavily pregnant wife Mirka and, over in the royal box, the man whose Grand Slam record he had just overhauled, Pete Sampras.

Federer said: “I used to get nervous when a friend would come and watch me play as a kid, and then it was my parents, and then it was legends. Today anybody can come and watch me play, I don't get nervous anymore. But with Pete it was a bit special. When he walked in and I saw him for the first time, I did get more nervous actually. I said hello to him too, which is unusual. But I thought, I don't want to be rude!” Federer grinned.

“I know how much the record meant to him and he knows how much the record means to me. In a way, I still feel like we share it, just because he was such a wonderful champion. He still has one up against me here,” said the Swiss of the seven-time Wimbledon winner. “That’s why I played the exhibitions with him, to see how he plays and to get to know him better. Spending time with him maybe inspired me to beat his record. Tennis has to be fun – not just forehands and backhands. Playing with great champions and then going and having something to eat with them afterwards gives me something else to think about.”

The final word, however, was for the woman who has shared his life for the past 10 years, before there was any talk of titles, let alone Grand Slam records – his wife Mirka. “My career has had a lot of ups and downs but Mirka has always been there. I’m unbelievably grateful to her. She had to stop playing because she had such pain in her foot, but she went really quickly from being a player to my girlfriend and my helper, and it was never a problem for her. I’m really lucky.”

A few other questions were thrown out to him, but the champion’s exhausted mind was elsewhere. “Sorry, I wasn’t listening there,” was all he could proffer, and then he was off, “to sleep! I’m exhausted”. The warrior will rest, but not on his laurels.

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