James Lawton: Federer's dream may signal dawn of a new era

Flawless display by modest 21-year-old evokes memories of Centre Court legends and may prove to be a portent for years of domination

A few days ago the talk was of tennis as a dying art form. Such luminaries as John McEnroe and Boris Becker put their names to an official letter. Ban rackets as big as mechanical shovels, they pleaded.

But all that sounds like old history now. It did, after all, come before the dawning of the time of Roger Federer.

The 21-year-old Swiss explored every nuance of the game so superbly, hitting so many exquisite grace notes, that he left just one question lingering in a stunned and marvelling Centre Court yesterday after beating Mark Philippoussis in three straight sets of an unanswerable claim on the men's singles title.

The question was straightforward enough. Had Federer, whose winning temperament has been questioned more or less permanently since he lowered the banner of the great Peter Sampras on his first appearance in Centre Court two years ago, ushered a new epoch of the game, one in which he might just dominate as great players like Bjorn Borg and Sampras did before him? Or was this just one brief flowering of genius? There is no more intriguing question in the game of tennis.

Philippoussis, who earlier in the tournament had drawn out and beaten the best of what is left of Andre Agassi's game, admitted that he couldn't live with the beautifully rounded performance of his conqueror - but he would only give half an answer to the enquiry which is surely firing the imagination of all who saw an effort that was as thrilling as the turn of a thoroughbred's hoof at Tattenham Corner or the shuffling one-two dance of a Muhammad Ali.

The big man said: "Obviously he is so very talented, but he can do everything on the court. He's comfortable with serve and volleying, as he showed today. So it's quite simple really... when you have a great day everything looks great, everything's perfect. So he definitely deserves today.''

But if he took the day, does he also claim the future? Federer, who broke down when the full impact of what he had achieved hit him as he walked back to his courtside chair after the moment of victory, was in no mood for triumphalism. Sampras's seven Wimbledon titles represented, he suggested, an improbable peak even for a man who grew up in the shadow of the Alps.

He said: "This is just one of Sampras's seven titles, you know. I'm so far away from that I am just happy to be on the board. It's so nice to think of that when you look at all the players who have won here, so many of them have been idols to me. Just to be on the board with Borg and these people, to be part of history at Wimbledon, well it's incredible.''

Such modesty is already being invaded by dazzling hopes - and possibilities.

One was provoked by the climax to one of a series of astonishing rallies which saw Federer, who had worked Philippoussis around the court as a great matador might a ferociously frustrated bull, step forward to produce a drop shot of uncanny touch and crowning self-confidence. A Spanish observer, old enough to have seen the artistry of his countrymen Manuel Santana, could not resist a cry of "Ole!"

Later tennis experts were listing the qualities that had gone into a performance that rarely strayed from perfection. The consensus was that he has shown the smooth variety of Sampras's serve, the icy control of Borg and the subtle and original stroke selection of Santana.

On top of these technical virtues was the overwhelming sense of a sensitive young man who had finally delivered of the talents he displayed as a junior champion of Wimbledon. He paid tribute to the late Peter Carter, his Australian coach who died in a car crash and clearly left a hole in his protégé's life. "I hope he was watching from somewhere because he was one of the people I am thinking of now - one of the people who helped me get here to this day."

Federer talked us back to the moments that brought his tears of joy. "You know,'' he said, "when he hit the passing return you think, 'Oh, it's going to be a tough volley', then it stays in the net and you don't really know what to do in that first moment of winning. I just knew that I was going to go down on the floor and enjoy it and then see what happened. Maybe, I thought hopefully, I won't cry but it's kind of difficult in such a big situation in an unbelievable stadium.

"What did I think about? You know it was just that I couldn't believe it. That is really what was going through my mind in those first moments when I sat down on my chair... you get a quick flashback but in the first moments you are just overwhelmed. Then you see the trophy and it's so beautiful. Gold. You don't have golden trophies very often. Then you have it in your hands and you are holding something you've always dreamed of. You ask yourself 'This is true right now? Am I dreaming?'''

No, he wasn't dreaming but like everyone else in the Centre Court, he could have been excused for thinking so.

This was a performance for the gods. It was also a thrilling portent for years ahead.

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