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Monday, July 6, 2009

Federer the three-minute wonder

Photo Titled Federer kisses trophy
Federer kisses trophy

Two weeks of effort, two decades of training and a lifetime of hoping – and all of it is condensed into three minutes on Centre Court. For both Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, they must have been three of the longest minutes of their lives. By the end of them, Roddick’s dream of winning Wimbledon was shattered while Federer was knocking on the door of greatness.

If Federer could win the title, he would end all arguments: he would become the greatest player to lift a racket. He would break Pete Sampras’s record of 14 Grand Slam titles and he would regain his number one world ranking from Rafael Nadal.

When Sampras set the record in 2002, winning the US Open final, no one believed it could be bettered. Sampras certainly knew there was nothing left for him to achieve in the sport and never played competitively again. But Federer has set a new standard and he is nowhere near finished yet. With the weight of expectation lifted from his shoulders, he is free to play and win for as long as he likes. And Federer, released from that stultifying pressure of chasing history, may yet reach even greater heights.

The three minutes in question came in the second set tiebreak. Roddick had blasted and feathered his way to four set points – and while Roddick’s serve is a world famous sledgehammer of a shot, he has made a good job of keeping his touch and finesse hidden under a bushel. So, then, here were four opportunities to take a two-set lead over Federer in the Wimbledon final. And in those four points and three minutes, Federer became great.

Sure enough, there was another three hours or so to play, another 52 games to marvel at, and another 35 aces to fly from Federer’s racket – he served 50 in all – before he would eventually win 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14 but Federer had pulled rank as a five-time Wimbledon champion and stated his intent: “This is mine to win and yours to lose – the sixth title is mine.”

As Roddick tried to breathe and keep his head, Federer piled on the pressure. The Swiss grabbed one set point back with a backhand, he took the next two back with an unreturnable serve and an ace. Now he had taken Roddick’s safety net away, now Roddick had one last chance. And Roddick blew it, fluffing a volley as the tension gripped his racket arm. Two backhand winners from Federer later, and the score was one set apiece. Roddick was stunned and Federer knew in that moment that he was invincible.

In many ways, the moment had really come four weeks earlier when, after three consecutive soul-destroying losses in the French Open final to Nadal, Federer finally laid his hands on the trophy. There he equalled history, here he knew he could beat it.

This year at Wimbledon, Federer has played with the old strut and swagger, showing the supreme confidence of his early title-winning years in SW19 and the self-confidence that only Nadal had managed to shake in the epic five-set final 12 months ago. Here this year, he believed that he could walk on water and however hard Roddick served – and 27 aces and 98 unreturned serves suggested he was serving pretty hard – nothing could shake that belief.

This may not have been Federer at his most artistic but it was Federer at his most ferociously determined

As Federer has approached various milestones in his career, the greats of the game have come to watch him. And time after time, the extra pressure of seeing Rod Laver or Bjorn Borg in the Royal Box usually reduced him to tears when the final point had been won. This time there were no tears – and this time there were considerably more VIPs who had come to witness the historic day.

Sampras had flown in that morning to watch the man who has become his friend shatter his legacy in four hours and 16 minutes of mental fortitude. This may not have been Federer at his most brilliant, at his most artistic, but it was Federer at his most ferociously determined.

Roddick may have reinvented himself in the past six months as he worked with Larry Stefanki, his new coach, but Federer was going back to basics, going back to the old Roger who simply could not and would not let anyone pass him.

At the tightest and tensest moments, Federer would encourage himself with a quietly growled “C’mon!” His c’mons are not as loud or as aggressive as Lleyton Hewitt’s, they are not screamed with blood vessels bulging and eyes popping, but they are every bit as terrifying. This was Federer going for the kill.

Poor Roddick tried everything he knew – and lots that he had not known until he hired Stefanki – to chase his Swiss rival but Federer was unshakeable. He soaked up every charge and attack from the American and looked calm and collected as he did so. And with the advantage of serving first in the deciding set, he could leave Roddick to feel the tension while he concentrated on breaking the American’s serve for the first time in the match.

The longer that set went on, the better Federer looked. As Roddick started to tire, the Swiss kept up the pressure. He swatted away two break points in the 17th game and suddenly looked as relaxed and as fresh as if this were the first set. Roddick could not catch him and he knew it. As he started to pick away at Roddick’s serve, Roddick knew it, too.

The scream of delight as Roddick skied his final shot high and over the baseline marked the actual moment Federer achieved greatness but those three minutes all those hours before were when Federer knew that greatness was his due. A lifetime encapsulated in 180 seconds.

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