Legends of the game backing sublime Swiss to rewrite history books

Victory in tomorrow's final will leave the world No 1 six behind Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles. Paul Newman explains why players past and present believe he will surpass that mark
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The Independent Online

Cliff Drysdale, a former Wimbledon favourite who is now one of the game's most respected commentators, has a criticism of Roger Federer. "I'd like to see him come into the net more," the 1965 and 1966 semi-finalist said here yesterday. "If he did I think he'd be an even better player than he is now." Heaven help the rest of men's tennis.

Those who thought that Federer's performance in beating Andy Roddick in straight sets in last year's final had neared perfection have been reconsidering that view over the past fortnight. From his first two matches, when he dismantled the highly promising Frenchman Richard Gasquet and Britain's Tim Henman in straight sets, the world No 1 has been playing tennis from a different planet to any of his rivals.

"I think he's better than ever here at Wimbledon," Drysdale said. "I think he was taken aback by the draw and saw what he had to do. That got his attention and he came out to play every match as though it was a quarter-final. That's done him good because he hasn't had any lapses, which he has in the past.

"I'd like to see him come into the net more because he's probably the best volleyer in the game at the moment. He just has no weaknesses. Rafael Nadal is a workhorse and an unbelievable talent, but he's a one-trick pony. He's got one style of play. He can't be a serve and volley player. But Roger can." Victory in tomorrow's final would leave Federer just three short of Pete Sampras' seven Wimbledon titles and six behind his record of 14 Grand Slam crowns, although he is not yet halfway to the American's milestone of 286 weeks as the world No 1.

Sampras believes those marks will be beaten by the time Federer retires. "I'm pretty confident that he's well on his way to not only breaking the No 1 ranking, but this Grand Slam record," Sampras said. "He's got all the tools and he's got the demeanour. He really has the whole package."

Federer's greatest strength is the fact that he has no weaknesses. His forehand, a stroke of majestic beauty, is one of the great shots in tennis, but his backhand is arguably more reliable. He is a great athlete, moving around the court with seemingly effortless speed, but is an even quicker thinker. For example, he gets into position so early that he regularly hits inside-out forehands from inside the backhand tramlines. His serve is not the most powerful, but his placement and variation can outwit the best returners. Above all, he keeps the coolest head in the house, even under great pressure.

Sergei Bruguera, the former French Open champion, believes that Federer is "10 times better than Sampras". He explained: "Sampras had the better serve - that was 90 per cent of his game - but Federer has everything. Sampras had one of the best serves ever, his returning was OK and he had a very good forehand, but Federer has an even better forehand, better backhand, better return game, better touch and feel. Their volleying is pretty even."

Federer says any comparison with him and Sampras would be unfair "because I haven't hit my prime". Sampras, who agrees with Federer that it is hard to compare players from different generations, believes the Swiss has benefited from a lack of competition.

"I don't see a really attacking player with a big enough weapon to really hurt him," Sampras said. "Roger and everyone else are just staying back and he's able to dictate. Against Roger you just have to beat him. You have to serve well and attack him, be selective.

"There's no one out there that has a big enough game, a big enough serve that can back it up and really put pressure on him. Even the bigger server, Andy Roddick, stays back. That's an uphill struggle for him. I think if I played Roger I would stick to my game and hopefully be good enough."

Other players have come to the same conclusion that attack is the only option. "To beat him on grass I think you have to have a very offensive game, including serving and volleying," said Henman, who took an aggressive approach last week but won only six games. "What limited success I had was when I served half-decently and came forward, but you also need him to be playing below his best because of how good and how consistent he is.

"I think the bottom line is that he's got so many options. If he plays against someone who is going to serve and volley all the time, he returns very, very well. If he's going to play against someone who is chipping and charging and trying to take the net away, then he'll serve and volley a bit more."

Federer himself says he is happy to change his own game according to the way his opponent is playing. "I've always done that," he said. "If a guy plays from the baseline, I play from the baseline as well. If he plays from the net, I also come to the net." John McEnroe believes it is important for opponents to play their own game. "Guys who win aren't going to adapt their game a great deal because that's already admitting defeat," he said.

How would McEnroe set about beating Federer? "There aren't a lot of players out there who are aggressive and play a serve-and-volley style. That's my natural style, so that would be the way I would try to approach it. Guys don't pressure him, though that's easier said than done.

"Guys like Sampras and Becker serve so big that it's not easy to break them, whoever you are, so it could come down to a couple of tie-breakers. My serve isn't as big as those players and I'd have to be on top of my game at the net. If I was, I think I could at least impose myself.

"You have to show the player, whoever it is, that you're out there with the intention of playing as hard as you possibly can and you have to get under his skin. That's part of it. When Nadal gets so fired up I think that's a good thing. That's what guys need to do, to show this guy that they're going to do whatever it takes."

Federer points out that he played from the baseline when he first appeared here as a senior in 1999. He then switched to more of a serve-and-volley game before reverting to his present style after losing to Mario Ancic - his last defeat on a grass court - in the first round here in 2002.

Has the slowing-down of Wimbledon's courts played into Federer's hands? Drysdale believes not. "I think he'd be as dominant if the courts were as they were 20 years ago," he said. "What makes him so special on grass is that the grass-court season is so short that there are no more real grass-court players. You can't design a game for a month. You can't play grass-court tennis 11 months of the year."