Among his many athletic virtues, Roger Federer is not the Alex Rodriguez of big time tennis. New York fans complain with some justification that the MVP slugger chokes at crucial moments, is not, as sportsmen say, a clutch player. There will be runners on second and third and two outs in the ninth inning with the Yankees trailing the Cleveland Indians — or any other team — by one run and the game needs winning because it’s the playoffs and what does the mighty Alex do?
Now of course, there are those, like that fine if overly cerebral writer who used to cover baseball for the New York Sun, who argue that this is a lot of hooey because the Yankees would not be in the playoffs against Cleveland or whoever without A-Rod’s astonishing performance during the regular season. However, in the tennis equivalent of the clutch moment, at the end of a closely played set, Federer has an ability to come through that is very nearly unprecedented. This resilience, this come-from behind willpower, this endurance and stamina and courage, this, in short, focus on what matters now, came out very clearly in the tiebreaker at the end of the second set of the gentlemen’s singles final at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club, located at Wimbledon, England.
Federer’s opponent, the powerful Andy Roddick, won the first set fairly handily, 7-5, and seemed in a position to take the second by the same score. Instead he faltered under Federer’s relentless aces in the 12th game. The ability to keep hitting aces at such a critical moment is, of course, itself an example of clutch play. Federer has one of the most consistent first serves in the game, and he almost never double faults. His first serve is at once strong and tactical, hitting the receiver where he least expects it. Still, when you are serving to save the set, you are under some pressure and may be excused for preferring to get the ball in play and take your chances. Not Roger.
But, having forced a tie-breaker, he somehow fell behind and let Roddick get to 6-2 (7 points win a tiebreaker.) Two sets up, the comeback kid (Roddick had not made the finals at Wimbledon since 2005), playing as well as he ever has in his life, would be, of course, in an advantageous position to close out the match. Federer stayed calm and let Roddick lose control, notably on the last point when he sent a fairly easy (for players at this level, mind) net shot sailing out of bounds instead of blocking it downward away from his opponent.
Federer, of course, is not only a clutch player. He is also a fine player — the finest of his generation. He encountered no serious opposition at Wimbledon this year until the final, even if in the semi a tough and talented Tommy Haas gave him a serious workout.
On the ladies’ side the Championships were comparably one-sided, though the dominating side was composed of two parts. The Williams sisters made it to the final almost effortlessly. The one dramatic moment was in the semi-final match between Serena and Elena Dementieva, who took the first set and played very hard through the end. Clutch play — saving points when she absolutely had to — is where Serena Williams showed her skill. It is a talent more valuable to her than her sheer strength, which players at her level, even her sister and frail Russians, can get used to and indeed learn to use against her, letting her make unforced errors.
After that, the match between the two best players since Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova was anti-climatic. They know each other too well to pull any fast strategic ploys, and the issue was whether Serena’s powerful game would overcome Venus’s tactical cross-court hitting and elegant net game. It did. Venus, who won the Championship in the previous two years, may at last be falling to her sister’s irresistible self-confidence and, a talent she shares with Federer, refusal to ever concede a point, let alone a set of a match.
However, where resilience is concerned, Roddick demonstrated no less determination. After letting Federer out-steel him in the second set and fight through a tight third (also going to a tiebreaker), Roddick fought back, dominating the fourth set 6-3. The scene was now set, if I may put it this way, for a classic that, in fact, turned into exactly that, the longest fifth set in Wimbledon history. (There are no tie breakers in fifth sets at Wimbledon, a rule that also applies to Davis Cup play and the French Open, apologies for the error on this point in my last dispatch and thanks to alert reader Frank Stieber of Arlington, Virginia, for the correction; Mr. Stieber, be it said in passing, has a determined forehand crosscourt shot.)
Andy Roddick played a brilliant tournament, showing a tactical intelligence that surprised many observers, including me. A marvelous athlete and a gentleman, Roddick has been known for poor judgment, often going to the net while giving his opponent an open shot. He made several such errors in the match against Federer, probably a reflection of the pressure he was under, also underscored by double faults. (Federer only made two.) But he never lost heart.
The key to not losing heart in tennis, instructors always tell you, is to play the point, not the game or the set. Focus on the immediate task and nothing else, and the immediate task is to keep control, as the great Bill Tilden said in one of these deceptively obvious insights of genius, of the ball.
Federer plays a Tildenesque game as well as anyone since Pete Sampras, in the sense that once he gets the ball in play, which of course he always does, he determines what kind of point it is going to be. Playing a relatively restrained net game — he got almost all his net shots but they were rare — he drove his opponents to the sidelines and then whipped winners to the opposite corner. Roddick was able to blunt this by his own excellent backcourt play. However, in the 29th game of the fifth set, he finally slowed down and Federer made shots from side to side and took the game handily. Roddick still was not quitting. He aced his way through half the thirtieth game, but Federer got the ball in play often enough to watch him make unforced errors, and that was that.
Britain’s great white hope, the ebullient Andy Murray, fought his way brilliantly to the semifinal, overcoming Stanislas Wawrinka in the round of 16 in an exhausting five-setter, but stumbling two rounds later. He and Roddick are Federer’s most likely challengers during the rest of the season, as it appears last year’s winner, Rafael Nadal, must remain attend to his knees. Lleyton Hewitt and Wawrinka and Hass remain dark horses.
The Championships at Wimbledon remain, thankfully, a reminder that good manners matter, on the part of fans no less than players. In a world like ours, that is no small thing. I personally dislike the instant video-review rule, wherein a player can challenge an umpire’s call. The players as often as not get it wrong and the umpires and linesmen are pretty well trained to watch where the balls bounce. The point is that you are supposed to accept the rules and the arbiters of the rules. A delirious umpire would not be allowed to officiate very long. What happens with player challenges is that you introduce a kind of litigiousness on the court. Clean, white-outfitted spectators dressed (for the most part) in at least casual-formal clothes that even George Will would find acceptable, with players accepting the breaks of the close calls and carrying on, Wimbledon was the quintessence of good sportsmanship. I do not think the instant review gizmo subverts this, any more than does the stupid and stupidly expensive roof they finally installed after talking about it for years. (Murray and Wawrinka played under it, to the latest hour, about 10 p.m., in Wimbledon history.) You can worry about these things, I suppose.