James Lawton: Champion finally buries doubts with grace and dignity
Federer has rescued from his most unforgiving years a certain sense of himself
Monday 08 June 2009
It didn't really matter how Roger Federer reached his finishing line drawn in the red clay of Paris.
Most important was for him to get there and confirm his claim to be not just the greatest male tennis player of all time but arguably the embodiment of all that is best in sport: ambition, dignity, grace, superlative skill and sportsmanship and, perhaps most enchanting of all, an unshakeable gratitude for all that has come to him in the course of his extraordinary career.
None of those qualities would have lost their glow if his decline over the last year or so had put beyond him yesterday's achievement of drawing level with Pete Sampras on the record mark of 14 Grand Slam titles and the gaining of the French prize that was beyond the resources of the great American.
But then all those jewels of character would not have been enshrined in the records from which so many draw their perspectives on the highest of performance – and that would have been a pity because the reputation of Federer, whatever else he achieves in the challenges left to him at the age of 27, is impregnable now in a way it might not have been in some dusty future assessment.
It was also glorious that, in reaching out to a unique place in his sport, Federer produced some of his most exquisite play.
The committed, and powerful, Robin Soderling of Sweden simply found himself on another level of challenge. His magnificent progress through the French Open had, he realised perhaps before the end of the first game, delivered him only into the unmerciful jaws of genius.
Least surprising of all – certainly it was guaranteed in a way that his exquisite drop shots, his almost surreal control of pace and placement of shot and his absolute confidence that when it mattered he could produce the killing move could not be – was the charm with which Federer handled his triumph.
That charm, which was extended to both Andre Agassi, who presented the trophy from the high ground of being the last player to complete a Grand Slam victory on all surfaces, and the beaten Soderling, filled every corner of the great tennis court – and inevitably reminded us of the style with which he accepted the cruellest of defeats at Wimbledon last summer when his nemesis in Paris, Rafael Nadal, carried his dominance to the grass of SW19.
Nadal's fall here and his injury problems, plus the failures of Andrew Murray and Novak Djokovic to enforce their rights of succession, may just present Federer with an unexpected opportunity to add to his five Wimbledon titles. Certainly it will be a most intriguing sub-plot in all but the slopes of Murrayhill. However, for the moment, Wimbledon can wait. For now it is enough that Federer has rescued from his most unforgiving years a certain sense of himself and his own majestic performance.
Not so long ago his achievements were marked by the kind of inevitability which touches the success of his friend Tiger Woods on his most imperious days. Now, for Federer there is a vulnerability that has come with the years and, most pointedly, the rise of Nadal.
Yesterday his supreme achievement was to bury almost all of those doubts. There was a flicker of concern for broken concentration when an intruder evaded the first line of security and a moment or two of anxiety at the end of the concluding third set.
Even then, it seemed impossible, outrageous, that the doors of the pantheon might be closed to a competitor of such quality. Roger Federer, when you thought about it for a second, was merely claiming his dues.
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