Roger and in: now Federer can live with Sampras tag

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Not only is Roger Federer in this afternoon's Wimbledon final, he carries the John McEnroe seal of approval on to Centre Court with him. The well-constructed Swiss 21-year-old, with a square-jawed face that has more in keeping with Marciano than McEnroe, is, in the opinion of the three-time Wimbledon champion, "someone who comes along in tennis every 10 or 20 years". Just like himself, in fact.

Pete Sampras is the player most people like to compare Federer to, especially after his ruthless demolition of Andy Roddick in Friday's semi-finals. But, as his amiable Swedish coach, Peter Lundgren, points out, it is a bit early to be bracketing his man with someone who won Wimbledon seven times. McEnroe might be reading from his own CV when he says of Federer, "He can hit any shot", and further comments, "If you want to be a tennis player, model yourself on Roger Federer."

In truth, the Sampras comparison has proved both embarrassment and millstone since Federer halted Pete's 31-match Wimbledon winning streak two years ago in a dramatic five-setter. That summer he went out in the next round, the quarter-finals, to Tim Henman. That apart, the Wimbledon record had been pathetic until the past fortnight, with first-round exits at his other three Wimbledons.

But progress had been in the pipeline, as people like McEnroe were not slow to spot. Last year he won a total of 82 matches (58 singles, 24 doubles) and three titles: Sydney, Vienna and the Masters Series event on clay in Hamburg. This year he has picked up four more: Marseilles, Dubai, Munich and Halle. Including Halle, he is unbeaten in 11 grass-court matches. All part of the plan, Federer says. "You build a shield of respect for yourself by doing well at the smaller tournaments. That is what Lleyton Hewitt did, and he has gone on to win Grand Slams."

Perhaps the time has come for the lad with the build of an Alp to emulate the Australian. "That was definitely the best I have seen him play on grass, incredible," said Lundgren after Roddick had been shown the door.

"He has so many solutions when he plays. For Roger, it has been important to make mistakes and learn how to lose before he started to learn how to win. He's done it all. He is so complete - big forehand, good backhand, he's got it all. Sampras had a similar game, though he was a bigger server. But Roger served really well against Roddick, I don't think he has served this well before."

Federer, a modest, well-liked sportsman back home, could not do otherwise but agree. "I hit some unbelievable shots," he said in the wake of Friday's win. "I really feel quite good about myself, the way I kept my level up. I knew it was in me. Now I hope I still have something left for Sunday."

Federer received sporting support from Roddick. "He played one hell of a match," said the American. "I don't know if there's anybody out there more talented. He's a great athlete, so quick. There's not much he doesn't have. It seems he's putting it together upstairs and it's all coming together for him."

It all began to come together when Federer, who found at an early age that tennis came implausibly easy to him, left home in the village of Munchenstein, near Basle, at 14 to live at the Swiss junior training centre in Ecublens. "I was homesick at first," he admitted. "But it got better after three or four months."

In those days he resembled the early McEnroe in other ways. "I used to carry on like an idiot. It was ridiculous. People used to ask me when I was going to stop it, but I told them it wasn't their job to tell me to shut up, it would have to come from me. I am pleased it disappeared by itself because if you show your emotions on the professional circuit you're going to lose, because your opponent sees his chance. Now I think it's funny when somebody freaks out."

Federer is more popular at home than Martina Hingis was, because he is Swiss-born and she was not. He is also more popular with the tennis authorities there because Hingis and her mother and coach, Melanie Molitor, went their own way. "He is the type of guy you can relate to because he is like the boy from next door," said one Swiss colleague. Federer agreed that he is careful not to lose the respect of friends because of his success. "I don't want them to think I have a balloon head," he said, "so when I'm home I go and play cards with them and try to live a normal life."

That will not be easy after today, win or lose. Switzerland's reaction to sport could usually be described as complacent, or even staid. "But when we get excited we really get excited," said the Swiss sports writer Rene Stauffer. "Now I think the cork has come out of the bottle. The sports public outside the tennis world has got interested, it is like an avalanche."

Federer was Wimbledon junior champion in 1998, and should he win today he would become the first since Stefan Edberg to capture junior and senior titles at The Championships. When he left the Swiss training school he was put in the joint charge of two coaches, the Australian Peter Carter and Lundgren. He eventually opted to link up with Lundgren, a former touring pro who might well have had a bit part in Easy Rider, a hard-rock fan who used to carry a guitar in his tennis bag. and who once beat Ivan Lendl on the way to to winning the San Francisco title.

Federer is similarly laid- back, enjoying travel (while disliking planes), relishing WWE televised wrestling and nominating gnocchi gorgonzola as his favourite dish. He also has a favourite necklace, a wooden one he bought while on holiday in South Africa after being assured it would keep the sharks at bay when swimming. It may come in useful today against a Great White from Australia.