The magician came to town, went to town, and left us spellbound yesterday. At times Roger Federer reaches such a peak of sheer jaw-dropping, gasp-inducing brilliance that there's nothing he cannot do. No shot is too daring. We saw countless examples of stunning winners, including one off a smash.
Even Mario Ancic was applauding at one stage. There are few balls Federer cannot hunt down, smooth as silk, and send back with a beautiful vengeance. And his serve is relentlessly brilliant, not just because it's got power but because he moves it around. The placement is accurate. He can jam into the body, he can go down the middle. He can go out wide. And he can do it at will, which is where the brilliance comes in.
Opponents simply have no clue where it's going to go, only that it will be hard to get back. That's why Federer has dropped only two service games in this entire tournament so far, one of them yesterday against Ancic, who is one hell of a player and, more significantly, did come to the party yesterday. But the bottom line is that Federer, when in the zone, is a different species. What he did to Ancic in winning 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 was show the magnitude of his talent.
I'd make a comparison with Michael Jordan in his prime. At any given time in a match when his team desperately needed to three-pointer, the question was always "Where's Jordan?". Then you gave him the ball. He did whatever was necessary to get the three-pointer. Federer does what's necessary, in audacious fashion, to win the big points.
Ancic started well, hitting aces, showing intent, but was there any sign, even after the first four games were shared, that Federer was going to be rattled? No. His supreme calm endured. Why? Heck! Because he just knew he was going to win. The guy is a phenomenon. He remains so calm that you have to conclude he truly believes, at the very deepest level, he can do what the hell he likes. And he can, and he lets opponents know it all the time.
An example from yesterday: Ancic serving, early in the second set, 40-0 up. Federer has nothing to lose in going for something special even by his own standards, and thunders a 104mph forehand winner. It's just incredible, and it just says to Ancic: "I've got a lot more of these for when I really need them."
What any future opponent must be asking, especially at Wimbledon, is "Just what the hell do I need to do to beat the guy?" That's the tough part. When he's like this, you can't. He's a class apart, a thoroughbred of the highest calibre. And talking of thoroughbreds, here's an idea about how to even things up. We should make Roger carry weights. Twenty pounds should do. And if that fails, he should be required to do push-ups. One between each shot might be enough. Might.
The wonderful nature of youth
This week I'll be answering some of the questions you've been sending to me along with your email applications to win a one-month scholarship at my Florida academy. The prize is for one student (Under-18s only). Just tell me: how can I help you, and why?
So, today's question. Roy Cook has emailed to ask who was the best player, as a child, I've ever seen. And on a related subject, Liz McKenzie-James asks: "As a player evolves, at what stage does a coach or player decide or know their identity on court? eg: a serve & volleyer or aggressive baseliner?"
In answer to the first part, Monica Seles, age 11, was not only hugely talented but dedicated, disciplined, focused, and already winning regularly. I first met Venus and Serena Williams when they were 10 and nine. They were astonishing even then.
As for identity, it's important all the basics are taught from the day one. People develop at different rates but a style (and serve-volleying is rarer than most) will emerge from around 12 onwards.
Hang on to your hats, Belgium!
Before we get to today's second semi-final I have to congratulate my soccer team on their dramatic win over Germany.
Jeez! I bet the whole of Italy went crazy. I was watching on TV, and though I'm a New Yorker, I'm first and foremost an Italian, from Naples, and I'll be back "home" on holiday in Capri soon. Forza, Azzurri! Today is Belgium's day, and I think Justine Henin-Hardenne versus Kim Clijsters could go either way. Instinctively, I go for Henin in two, but if it goes longer, and Clijsters can keep whacking with consistency, she can try to pin Justine in the forehand court and then attack her backhand, but high, behind her and above her shoulder. That could be her chance.
My concern over Clijsters is I don't know if she's thinking more about winning Wimbledon (which should be her sole thought) or more about retirement. Saying you're planning to give up the game at a specific time seems oddly distracting to the job in hand.
Watch out for Henin's marvellous and utterly punishing inside-out forehand, the best on the women's tour.
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