Federer approaches perfection in a blazer of glory
Admiration for Swiss maestro is tempered with concern about lack of genuine challengers
Sunday 09 July 2006
The most uncomfortable moment Roger Federer has experienced at Wimbledon came not on court but in a rain break during his match against Mario Ancic. Watching television in the locker room, he heard John McEnroe waxing lyrical. Federer, the American said, could win if he was wearing a blindfold.
"I was like, yeah right," Federer said. "We haven't gone that far yet. It's not only me watching, it's everybody, so you just want to go somewhere. When stuff like this comes up I'd rather make the comment myself than somebody else does it."
It made Roger feel slightly hot under the collar of his bespoke cream jacket which in a short space of time, given the speed with which he has condemned his opponents to an early shower, is destined for a place in the swish new museum here. The jacket's over-embroidered crest includes three rackets for his Wimbledon hat-trick, but by this evening the odds are that this will be out of date: new jacket please.
McEnroe and his compatriot Jimmy Connors, both former streetfighters, say Federer may be the best player the world has ever seen. One question dominates the championships: how on earth, or grass, do you beat him? Cue embarrassing silence. Attack him, the experts say, quickly adding that it is easier said than done. If you stay back he will destroy you, if you go to the net he will pass you. Tracy Austin said the only way Federer could lose is if he was in a car crash, without suggesting that anybody should go so far as to tamper with his brakes.
Ancic, the last player to beat him on grass, at Wimbledon in 2002, says that at times he played textbook tennis against Federer last week: a good first serve, deep volley to the opposite corner. Against 99 per cent of opponents the point is won; against Federer it islost. Nobody covers the ground faster.
In reaching his fourth successive final the man from Basle has made everything look so ridiculously easy. He has not dropped a set and his matches have taken 1hr 12min, 1:25, 2:05, 1:23, 1:46 and, against Jonas Bjorkman, 1:17. Rafael Nadal, by contrast, has been working his socks off. A nitpicker would say that, on clay, which is Nadal's best surface, Federer's backhand is slightly suspect. On grass it looks lethal. Ancic said that some of the passing shots were so fast he did not see them.
Witnesses to the destruction of Bjorkman marvelled at Federer's performance, but at the same time felt slightly uneasy. Wimbledon men's semi-finals are not supposed to be over in less than 80 minutes. Both played with Wilson rackets, but the Swede may as well have used a baseball bat.
At the age of 24 the former Wimbledon junior champion is being compared to champions such as Tiger Woods and Michael Schumacher. "Tiger is very charismatic, he has brought something new to golf and that's what I try to do with tennis, with the beauty of my strokes," Federer said. "To be compared to any other great sportsman is for me a big honour, because I look up to Tiger, Schumacher, all these other great athletes."
And they, increasingly, look up to him, but it is not healthy for tennis if Federer does to the game what Schumacher did to Formula One. It will become, well, boring. It is why most people are hoping that Nadal, who in the French Open wrecked Federer's ambitions of becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four majors at the same time, gives the ice pick a run for his money today.
Yesterday Federer was asked if the Spaniard "gets in your face". "No. I see 10 per cent of what he does; I turn around so quickly I don't get to see all the things he does. I don't think he acts bad. He just pumps himself up. That's legal, no?"
Federer does not need an advantage. There are no weaknesses on court, so he must have an Achilles heel off it? Maybe all this attention is getting to him. After his victory over Ancic he said: "It was an incredible performance. It was so good, you know." Did you hit some shots that surprised you? "Yeah, plenty." From anybody else it would sound smug, but if Federer has an enemy or a critic they are very thin on the ground. The worst that can be said of him is that he is the only Wimbledon champion with four Rs and four Es in his name. He handles press conferences better than a politician, and returns questions in style and in four languages.
"He's the best player I've ever played against, full stop," Tim Henman said after Federer annihilated him 6-4 6-0 6-2. "It's very, very difficult to have an impact on any area of his game. He's so difficult to beat on any court, but even more so on grass. He's just got so many options."
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