Monday, 6 July 2009

Federer forges legend but public sympathy lies with Roddick

Federer's ecstacy was contrasted by Roddick's despair

And so it was with a miscued forehand that Roger Federer became the greatest Grand Slam player of all time, surpassing the previous holder of that title under his very gaze, which was somewhat shielded from the sight by a pair of sunglasses. The errant shot came from the racket held by the tired hand of Andy Roddick and provided the Swiss with his first break of the match in the last game of the match. As it always is with things timed as such it was the one that mattered and just as the man who he has now overtaken in total Grand Slam titles arrived late to proceedings (inviting a warm round of applause from those in attendance) so too did Federer’s best play and match-winning break.

Seeing Federer’s hands raised in victory come the end of the final was a sight predicted by nearly every pundit, pro, and man in the street prior to events at SW19. What no one could have foreseen was that by that time most observers would have been acquiescent to, if not wholly willing for, the reverse taking place. Such was the unwavering endeavour and relentless talent exerted by Roddick over the previous record-making 77 games that he achieved the impossible and shifted the support of those who had gone (or tuned-in) to see Federer make history over to the American’s side of the net. “I can wait a tournament, or even a year, for Federer to do it. And he will do it. Roddick’s time for Wimbledon triumph may never come again,” was the sentiment expressed by this onlooker.

The roar that greeted Roddick as he collected his silver shield was undoubtedly merited (unlike so many other times when the British public warms to a loser). That in cruel defeat he could joke, “I tried to hold him off for you” by way of an apology to Pete Sampras, after all the exertions, both mental and physical, he’d put himself through, was unbelievably admirable. Indeed he could have won in four had he put away just one more point when 6-2 up in the second set tie-break. On this most crucial occasion Roddick’s divine strength became his Achilles’ heal as a 2009 breaker record going into the match of 26-4 became 26-6 in consecutive sets allowing Federer the cling on and then forge ahead when it looked for all the world that he would be swamped by Roddick’s perpetual energy.

That Roddick battled so hard and was within touching distance of the golden trophy at numerous points throughout the match is what makes his accumulation of an unwanted hat-trick of Wimbledon runner-up places (all to Federer) so heart-breaking to see. These facts were what made Federer’s attempts at condolence sound almost galling. While comparing Roddick’s current emotional state with that of his own from 12 months ago, after losing to Nadal in another epic final, and stating that he had now returned to win was an attempt to reassure the American it jarred on the ears. “Yeah but you won it five times before that!” Roddick retorted holding back the tears, before visibly shaking his head in disbelief at the contrast.

“Federer’s a stud,” the second-best player in Grand Slam history purred in a differently toned post-match interview, before going on to speculate that Federer could win 17 or 18 by the time he’s done. The thought of future Majors inevitably brought to mind the image of Nadal, Federer’s roadblock to earlier Roland Garros success, and the man who has beaten him in five of their seven Grand Slam final contests. Federer looked irreparably broken just five months ago after the Australian Open defeat and we were left wondering whether he’d ever be able to overcome the Spaniard again and make the history he was destined to. That he has equalled and gone beyond Sampras’s record so swiftly, in the process claiming his maiden French Open title, is invigorating and astonishing in equal measure.

But you get the sense that in not facing his irrepressible rival in either tournament the achievement lost some of its sheen, both for Federer and his many fans. How fitting would it have been for him to reach 15 and reclaim his Wimbledon crown by beating the player who had taken it from him? Yet while some of sports minor sub-plots have by chance been perfectly scripted the longer arches are never written without fault and nothing can take away from Federer’s continued brilliance over so many years. 21 Grand Slam semis in a row, seven Grand Slam finals in a row, now 15 Grand Slam titles; the stats are simply mind-boggling. Just the fact that Federer has managed to stay fit for such a long period deserves our admiration. That we are blessed to be living in a time of such legend-making should never be forgotten.

However, great duals enhance the best myths and it must be hoped Nadal can permanently recover from his knee injury, both for his and Federer’s sake. To have two great champions fighting it out for the biggest prizes will secure this period of tennis as the most memorable and remarkable ever, raising each players’ reputation to sacred status in the process. And Federer will surely want to prove he still remembers how to beat his thorniest of foes on the grandest stages.

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