Countdown to the Wimbledon Championships: Federer, the timeless champion who can only get better

John Roberts finds the 23-year-old defending men's title holder proud of his remarkable achievements, but all too aware of his weaknesses

I wish that I could fly Into the sky So very high Just like a dragonfly

Roger Federer not only hums Lenny Kravitz's opening line from "Fly Away", he lives it. The 23-year-old Swiss is the world's No 1 tennis player, the Wimbledon champion for the past two years, Laureus World Sportsman of the Year and United Nations Ambassador for the Year of Sport. He is also acknowledged, by peers and legends alike, as potentially the best player who ever lived.

Andre Agassi, one of only five men in history to have won all four Grand Slam singles titles, is unstinting in his praise: "There's probably not a department in Federer's game that he couldn't be considered the best in that department. The guy plays from the back of the court, from the front of the court.

"You watch him play [Lleyton] Hewitt, and everybody marvels at Hewitt's speed and you start to realise, 'Is it possible Federer moves even better?' Then you watch him play Andy [Roddick] and you go, 'Andy has a big forehand. Is it possible Federer's forehand is the best in the game?' You watch him at the net, you watch him serve-volley somebody that doesn't return so well, and you put him up there with the best in every department. You see him play from the ground against those that play from the ground for a living, and argue that he does it better than anybody."

Splendid fellow though he is, Federer must guard against an onset of hubris as he reaches for the garlands. So far, he has been able to sift through the compliments without showing many signs of letting them go to his head.

"I think the consistency I have shown over the last two years really has proven to everybody, also especially to myself, that I can do it," he says. "The important moments, like in finals and against the other top 10 players, are when I actually play my best. That's what usually the all-time greats do.

"Because I play the style I play, the one-handed backhand, and varying my game so much, I get a lot of attention from the former players. It's nice to hear, but we'll see maybe in 10 years how good I'm really going to be. The career I've had so far has been terrific."

Statistics are not the only measure of Federer's immense talent, but the fact is that he has been defeated only three times in his last 71 matches (see panel). He won three of the four Grand Slam singles titles last year, and is unbeaten in his last 20 finals, an ATP record. He has won 14 matches in a row at Wimbledon since falling to Mario Ancic, of Croatia, in the first round in 2002.

Losing his Australian Open title to Marat Safin in January hit Federer hard, but he worked the disappointment out of his system by winning in Rotterdam a fortnight later.

He took the loss to the 18-year-old Richard Gasquet in Monte Carlo in his stride, frustrated at failing to put away a match point but ready to rest his sore feet as the Tour moved on to Rome without him. In Paris, he was disappointed with his form after losing to the unrelenting Rafael Nadal in fading light.

The sport's most complete player does have weaknesses in his game. "Yes, of course," he says. "My forehand is better than my backhand, but it's also a problem if you have everything the same, which everybody says I have. But I know where I'm better and where I'm weaker, but that's very normal for every player.

"With me it's my backhand, and my return a little bit at times, and I don't get many aces. It totally depends. Otherwise it's the volley. Form on the day. Sometimes it could be that the court lets you down. Maybe you're tired, And sometimes you don't know why."

Jim Courier was a "blue collar" world No 1, who, lacking Federer's skills, literally worked his way to the top. "I look back more on the things that I did on the weeks off with wonder," Courier recalls, "because that's where the real work happened. Those weeks off were brutal. As I matured in my career, I recognised that rest was a very important part of my regime that I had omitted in the early stages."

Federer, who tended to overplay in the past, has learned to rest between engagements. "I need to have my rest," he says, having decided to miss Switzerland's Davis Cup tie against the Netherlands in March. "I could have continued practising [that week], but then I'm scared of a burn-out situation. So I have to take my time off, and I plan very carefully.

"I feel I work hard. Maybe other guys work harder. I believe that there are definitely guys out there [that do], but I have the feeling I'm giving all the time I have for condition training."

As he prepares for his attempt to add his name to those of Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg and Fred Perry by winning a hat-trick of Wimbledon titles, Federer is aware of Tim Henman's misgivings about the way the lawns have been grown to play slower. "I still call it a quick court," he says. "Otherwise the Spaniards would be winning that, too. It's because the movement is so different and difficult at Wimbledon that makes it quicker."

After defeating Federer at the Australian Open, Safin said he thought he knew the secret of Federer's success. "He knows so many secrets, it's amazing," Federer says, smiling. "He knows everything. I'm just joking. He's a good guy. [Juan Carlos] Ferrero said he knows the secret, Hewitt knows the secret, they all know it, but I'm still on top."

What is the secret? Federer smiles again. "You'll have to ask them," he says, "because I have no clue how to beat myself - I'm such a good player, you know!"

There is no secret, of course. Federer just happens to be the best. "It depends obviously on the form on the day," he says, "and I had unbelievable form on the day against top players last year. Of course, I cannot expect every time I face a top 10 player that I'm going to beat him. And I think they know that."

Roger and out: How to beat the unbeatable

Only three players have defeated Roger Federer since the Czech Thomas Berdych beat him in the second round at the Olympic Games last August. Here they explain how they did it.

Marat Safin

Who beat Federer 5-7, 6-4, 5-7,

7-6, 9-7 in the semi-finals of the Australian Open on 27 January 2005

At the beginning, playing Roger, I was very nervous. I didn't feel comfortable at all. In the second set I started to find my game, and I knew already what he doesn't like and where to push him, and in the end it worked.

I was a little bit lucky [to save the match point]. I had no other choice but to lob him from the drop-shot, and the only chance he had was to play a shot between the legs...

With Roger [you always have to remember], when he is playing bad, he has such skills that it doesn't make a big difference. He can come up with some great shots and his lowest level of tennis is pretty decent.

Richard Gasquet

The French 18-year-old beat Federer 6-7, 6-2, 7-6 in the quarter-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters on 15 April - after also saving a match point

Roger played very well in the beginning, then he started becoming a bit nervous.

I was able to return well and to play cross-court, which bothered him. I was surprised that he was missing his returns on my second serve.

I was dominating in the rallies. I played very well at the end of the second set. I was returning well. I was confident.

At the end of the third set I became a bit tired and a bit tense, but I played a beautiful tie-break.

Rafael Nadal

The hard-hitting Spanish prodigy marked his 19th birthday by beating Federer 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in the semi-finals of the French Open on 3 June

I started very well, with a good rhythm. That's what I wanted. It's very important to be able to break early. Then, with a second break, I could see that the first set was looking good for me.

He played very well in the second set. When he plays very well, I can do nothing. He has an unbelievable forehand, and when his forehand went to my backhand, it was very difficult for me.

In the third set, I improved in my game.

In the fourth set, the light was not the best. I thought we would try to finish the set, and if he won the set, go to sleep, and play tomorrow.

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