Federer: the dawning of a new sun king
Great and good of the game unite in wonder at artistry and artillery of a champion reaching his peak
Sunday 04 July 2004
Such has been the Alp-high adulation heaped on Roger Federer in the last few days by assorted authorities on the game and in the game that the Wimbledon champion must be glad of one thing: that he is Swiss, not British. Just imagine the Henman-type hoopla if Roger the Terminator were about to go out and win the Gentlemen's Singles Championship for the old country.
Boris Becker, pretty high-profile himself on the lawns of SW19 in his time, is particularly taken by Federer, who is, he says, "playing the game in a way that I haven't seen anyone play before". Becker adds: "Federer's levels are levels above everyone else's, and if he stays healthy and motivated he is the kind of guy who can overtake the greatest."
The fact that Federer is doing so well despite having sacked his coach, Peter Lundgren, towards the end of last year is, according to John McEnroe, "living proof that you don't need a coach". For Andrew Castle, "he makes it look as though he was born to do this, and that this is his stage", while John Lloyd is entranced by "his ability to hit winners from any part of the court and to make the difficult look easy".
Though, strangely, he managed occasionally to make the easy look difficult yesterday, Federer eventually saw off Sébastien Grosjean in straight sets inside half an hour when they resumed their semi-final at noon on Centre Court. He needed four match-points to do the job, and in the process of winning in straight sets, 6-2 6-3 7-6, dropped serve for only the second time at this Wimbledon.
When the players were driven off Centre Court by a combination of rain and poor light on Friday evening, Federer was 4-3 ahead in the third set. He should have wrapped it up in three games. Leading 5-4, he held two match-points on the Grosjean serve, but a combination of bold serving by the Frenchman and a couple of erratic forehand returns by Federer kept Grosjean alive.
Even worse was to follow for someone whose path has been exceptionally smooth so far. An outrageous forehand mis-hit put the Swiss break-point down, and he dropped serve on another forehand error, for only the second time this fortnight. However, any ambitions Grosjean had of extending the match into a fourth set and possibly putting back the start of the women's final were rapidly disabused. Clearly nettled at his own poor play, Federer broke Grosjean with contemptuous ease, concluding with a breathtaking cross-court forehand which bulleted past the incoming 10th seed.
But Federer was not to get away without a further indication that, on given days, he can be fallible. He allowed Grosjean to run up a 4-0 lead in the tie-break before sweeping the next five points, missing a third match-point at 6-5 and then conjuring another with a delicate forehand drop-shot and finishing it off, matador fashion, with a trademark smash. That combination of touch and tempest is what makes Federer so special a player and so difficult for the opposition to read. No shot seems beyond the scope of his sharp eye and powerful wrist, and his cross-court groundstrokes on both wings are things of beauty.
He is a marketing person's dream. How fortuitous, then, that Federer's parents and his girlfriend, Miroslava Vavrinec, known as Mirka, have set up just such a company to sell the Basle-born player. His father, Robert, is Swiss and his mother, Lynette, is a South African who gave up her job with a pharmaceutical company to work full-time on promoting her son.
The company promptly brought out a perfume called "RF", and ever since there has been a sweet smell of success for him. He has won five titles so far this year, including his second Grand Slam victory at the Australian Open.
So does he, too, consider himself unbeatable now? "No," he said in the aftermath of the Grosjean match. "I always feel my opponent has a chance. Of course this year has been fantastic for me, but it's still very difficult for me to understand why and how I'm so dominant this year. Hardly lost a serve, hardly lost a set. For me, it's very difficult to explain how it comes. I just try to focus for every match, and it seems like it's really working out for me. I guess the grass suits my game."
It certainly does. Going into this afternoon's final Federer is riding a streak of 23 consecutive grass-court wins, eclipsing Pete Sampras, and if he retains the title he will be second-best to Bjorn Borg, who clocked up what is surely an unsurpassable 41 matches unbeaten at Wimbledon from 1976 to 1981.
"My goals for this year are to stay at No 1, to defend this title and to play well at the Olympics," said Federer. "After Sunday, one goal is gone, either positive or negative. But long-term, I don't have a big plan to win I don't know how many Grand Slams, or to win so many tournaments. I will rethink my goals for the next year at the end of this year."
While professing not to know whether he is a better player than the one who won Wimbledon last year, Federer added: "I think I am a more complete player, more secure. I know what I have to do now, whereas last year, because I had never won a Grand Slam, I didn't. That is the main change in me. This is only my third Grand Slam final and I'm very thrilled and very happy, even though my matches have been rather easy, so I couldn't make any somersaults."
As for feeling at home on Centre Court, Federer was modest. "I'm still very young and I still need some time to call it home. But I feel welcome, very welcome, in this place as a member now. The chairman [Tim Phillips] always says hello, we always like to chat."
Federer revealed that when he parted company with Lundgren, he received lots of offers of help. "A lot of people wanted to tell me what to do and what not to do because I was without a coach. In the beginning a lot of people came up to me and told me I needed help. A lot of people were writing me emails, telling me I was doing this or that wrong. But I just listened to the people I really trust and believe in. That is why I am taking my time over a new coach. I don't just want someone to travel with me. If I want to work with a coach again it will be to improve my game. Anything else would be wrong."
Finally, Federer admitted that he gets "very nervous" before a final. Just as well, then, that he is Swiss, and not British, on Centre Court this afternoon.
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