The rain came at the right time for Roger Federer. It had been as damp in London this past fortnight as it has been oppressively warm on the eastern seaboard on our side of the pond, making you wonder how the Championships at the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club managed for 129 years without a roof. The roof turns Centre Court into an indoor surface and, as Andy Murray pointed out, “[H]e hasn’t lost an indoor match since 2010.”
If Murray were referring to anyone else, you would think he must be a big shot; but referring to Roger Federer, he was referring to someone who, because he had been the biggest shot, was viewed by the herd of independent minds that reports on sports as someone deserving of some kind of pity and compassion. In this, though the sociology is different, the psychology is somewhat comparable to the case of the New York Yankees. They can win the pennant, they are still losers if they do not win the World Series. It is ridiculous, of course, to think of a player who is better, repeatedly, than 126 others who enter a major tournament with him, as a “loser,” yet when a man like this is 127th out of 128, that is what, somehow, happens.
Federer needed this win at Wimbledon to burst the image that enveloped him since he began losing finals and semifinals to his rivals two years ago, the image of a former No. 1 who just did not have it in him any longer to grind out the exhausting five-set matches for two weeks running at Melbourne and Paris and London and Queens, N.Y. He could handle the Masters series, the week-long tournaments that lead up to the majors (or “Grand Slam” events, because winning all four majors in the same year is called a “grand slam,” though it has not been done since Rod Laver’s feat in 1969) and that are best-of-threes, as he did for example at Madrid earlier this year or during the great run during the end-of-year indoor surface season in 2011 which Murray referred to, a performance all the more remarkable in that it followed losses at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows when he was points away from victory, blows that would have crushed a lesser competitor’s psyche, damaged his focus.
With the roof up after a half hour or 40 minute delay, Federer could focus entirely on the ball, no worrying about the wind and any other extraneous factor. Immediately he showed what this meant. Murray was serving at 2-3, 40-0, when Federer engaged him in an unusually long point, almost unheard of on grass, and utterly foreign to Federer’s style of play, especially on this surface, where he likes to put bullet forehands down the line (and on the line) or come in for killer volleys, ending points quickly. That whole game was overly long, with seemingly interminable returns to deuce. There were in fact 10 of them before Federer broke to go up 4-2. Until then, it had been a pretty open question who was winning — Murray took the first set 6-4, Federer the second, 7-5. Henceforth, it was clear Federer could lose only by beating himself.
Withal, Murray was heroic. He slipped and fell several times, fought like a lion, made too many beautiful returns to count, even that last crosscourt backhand which for a moment did not look, on the screen, like it was sailing out. But it was, and Federer fell on the grass in elation and exhaustion and ecstasy. He was back.
He is back: with the win at Wimbledon — on which Murray complimented him with the outstanding sportsmanship that characterizes him, despite the huge pain he felt for missing a chance to win the trophy for Britain for the first time since Fred Perry’s 1936 win — Federer returns to No. 1 in the rankings, tying Pete Sampras’s record for weeks at that spot (he will pass him in a week), as he tied Pete for wins at Wimbledon, seven.
So it was a story of redemption, in a sense, but only because of the way the media shaped the perception of the “ageing” Federer in the past two or three years, the old lion unable to keep up with Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic and their lean and hungry looks. Note that Laver, who was 31 in 1969, said before this year’s Australian Open he thought Federer ought to be able to win it. He was off by two majors — Nadal beat Federer at Melbourne in the semis before falling to Djokovic in a terrific final, one of the longest ever, and Djokovic beat Federer at Paris in the semis, a rather poor match, before falling in turn to Nadal in a rain-delayed final.
IT IS DIFFICULT to see this as an old-lion or a redemption story. If anything, the plot works better in the case of the winner on the ladies’ side, Serena Williams, who really was down for a while over the past two years, with serious illnesses and a steep fall in her ranking. Moreover, she was beaten in the fourth round at Melbourne and in the first round at Paris, after losing in the final of the U.S. Open last year. In her case the over-the-hill perception was, too, largely created by the media’s frenzy to feed on anything that looks like a dramatic reversal of fortune (up or down, it scarcely matters), but the perception was shallow. Miss Williams had a good early season and a nice run on clay until Paris and at Wimbledon she was, well, back home: she and her sister Venus have won the championship five times each since 2000.
She did have a gifted opponent in Agnieszka Radwanska, a 23-year-old Krakowian whose court sense has been described as extraordinary by her compatriot Wojciech Fibak. Playing an astute game of defense and placement, she won the second set, 7-5, after being crushed in the first. Miss Williams then stepped on the gas some more and put on a display of aces that will be remembered. Actually, she hit 17 aces in the match; Miss Radwanska hit 16 during the two weeks of the tournament.
Two 30-year-old champions (Serena and Venus Williams won the ladies’ doubles as well) should comfort traditionalists at the All-England. It is rather as if order is restored, even if the restoration is not done by Brits. There will be some lingering questions, perhaps — was Federer lucky to not have to face Nadal, knocked out early by someone named Lukas Rosol? Was Miss Radwanska a sore loser for being without words for the winner? (I think she was mainly stunned.) The show goes on, with the past decade’s champions champions still: at least for the time being.
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