Why Roger Federer’s the Superman (of Wimbledon and sport)

He again gave a virtuoso performance and the nature of his victory said it all.

 |  11-minute read |   17-07-2017
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Roger Federer has won before, but winning Wimbledon for the record eighth time would have tasted much sweeter this time than the famed Swiss chocolate that the ever smiling champion grew up swallowing.

The applause deafeningly reverberated not only on the Centre Court but worldwide and one wonders why the world is acclaiming Federer’s another Wimbledon victory.

Boris Becker had famously declared that once he owned the keys of the Centre Court and now it looks that those keys stand snatched and transferred to the pockets of Federer. This time, he would have felt his feet firmly implanted on the pinnacle of tennis peaks - much like the peaks of the Alps that he watches from his home.

Unlike the time when he surpassed the record of 14 victories held by Pete Sampras, he may be happier thinking his record of 18 majors could now well be beyond the reach of Rafael Nadal and stand forever.

He again gave a virtuoso performance and the nature of his victory said it all. He never lost a set in the tournament and on the way to the final he beat some great challengers like Zverev (lost to him in the semi-final in Gerry Weber Open last year), Dmitirov (known as baby Fed due to similar games) and Raonic (lost to him in last year’s Wimbledon semi-final).

And in the final he made Cilic look like a child (almost reduced to tears) attending a masterclass given by the ultimate master. This year, Federer’s finesse and form took us back to the memory lane of yesteryears of his domination.

It was a replay and déjà vu of his earlier supreme confidence, skillful execution of shots, silken strides across court, smooth sublime touch tennis, effortless ease in court coverage that all combined in his not dropping a set throughout this tournament - a likely record in history.

In addition, he would go down as the oldest player to win a major, though in golf that record is held by Julius Boros who won a major at 48 but that is a different ball game altogether as Tom Watson almost won the British Open at 60.

During the early part of the last decade, he was marching on uninterrupted and unchallenged, showing mastery by winning majors with unfailing regularity - much like Tiger Woods had done up to 2008.

The spectators’ interest was waning due to virtually no contest in most competitions and all records were within his grasp, again, much like they were when his friend Woods was marching similarly to overwhelm all records in golf.

Federer was suddenly stopped in his tracks by sheer force of personality and physical play of Nadal- a conquistador ever ready for a challenge, contest and conquest with no capacity to capitulate.

In the beginning, that challenge left Federer shell shocked as before Nadal there was none to challenge his supremacy. And tennis was and is much enriched by the new rivalry that greatly enriched the riches of the ATP Tour and this rivalry was further ripened by four corner rivalry by the joining of Novak and Murray.

Federer’s rivalry with Nadal will be retold, refreshed, relived and recounted forever in history - much like that between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe (now being made into a movie with Shia LaBeouf playing McEnroe and Sverrir Gudnason as Borg) but with a marked difference: emerging challenge of another star McEnroe on the tennis horizon coincided with the sudden eclipse of Borg’s stellar career; but the emerging challenge of Nadal mercifully didn’t cause reaching of nadir by Federer; instead he rose from almost reduced to ashes - phoenix like - to stand and fight again.

In fact, he even reclaimed the number one spot for some time and has added three major titles after his near fall from the pedestal, much beyond the predictions of pundits. One can say Federer is keen on creating his own parallel, almost impossible, record in winning Wimbledon, much like what Nadal has done by winning the French Open ten times, so that both have a counterpoise whenever the ultimate champion is counted in history.

fed1_071717022053.jpgFederer retreated into the shadows, not to lick his wounds but to get better while the world predicted his imminent retirement. Photo: Reuters

Seems both have come to acknowledge each other’s strengths and have apparently allowed record creation in realm of their respective strengths (one on grass and the other on clay).

Federer’s universal appeal lies in his efforts and feats approximating the achievements of a Superman - an obsessive maxim governing the mindset of the West. Let’s consider how. His victories on tennis courts need no repetition (he has won record 92 ATP tours).

He typifies the essentials of what the best has to offer. Let’s consider some elements: his manic obsession in the pursuit of perfecting the skills of his craft; his affable, amiable demeanour and unparalleled courtesies shown to all opponents; almost perfect conduct on and off court specially on conquest and while giving interviews; picture perfect family portrait, not only of family of orientation but equally of family of procreation; perfect marriage to Mirka and two twins completing the perfect picture; his parents’ persistent presence in the family picture and his ever smiling visage while mobbed by fans and giving autographs - just to count a few.

Try counting these combinations for some other personalities and you would run into difficulties in finding role models. Much in the mould of Rod Laver, he would go down in history as a perfect role model for tennis posterity; in fact, he would have replaced Laver even if he had only achieved the Grand Slam of winning four majors in a single year.

I could only certainly guess with confidence on what defines him; it would inevitably be, first the twin maxim that winners don’t quit and quitters don’t win (I think he is living the maxim that was promoted by Nike - a brand that he endorses and is almost an echo of the line of Samuel Beckett lived by his friend Wawrinka), and the second would be to not rest on one’s laurels as there is always room for improvement.

The latter explains how his training team included his idol Stefan Edberg - till 2016 - and now Ljubicic who has helped improve his service returns. Long known to be a beauty in executing shots in a sublime manner, he sought to add some strong shots, specially the service returns, and thus combined, his play symbolised a combination of the elements of beauty and the beast of the sport (that is pure physicality combined with touch and sublime).

His amiable and affable personality is not merely put on. This is validated in his enduring friendship with Nadal who halted his unstoppable march to tennis greatness when he emerged.

Nadal has personally thanked his graciousness in attending the inauguration ceremony when he opened a tennis academy at his native place in Spain. Nadal, similarly, on his part, has followed strict instruction of his lifelong coach and uncle Toni Nadal - of not misbehaving on court come what may.

Nadal has carried that command of good conduct while off court as well - he lent his shoulder to a sobbing Federer during the prize distribution ceremony after victory at the Australian Open - when Federer was struggling to overcome the onslaught of Nadal and the world was virtually writing his tennis career off.

Some would always allege that Federer has been greatly helped by tennis gods in winning his only French Open and completing career Grand Slam when Nadal was absent and that his last victory at Wimbledon was achieved likewise.

But one shouldn’t forget that in this year’s Australian Open, Federer had vanquished Nadal in five sets, especially when Nadal holds the record of almost never losing the five-setter especially against Federer.

One should also remember that in this year’s Australian Open, Federer finally overcame the ghosts of being cornered by onslaught on his backhand by Nadal to indicate that great players never give up and love the challenge and coming back from the dead.

It’s not that Federer didn’t face imminent overshadowing by Nadal and Novak; he did and the inner turmoil broke through the icy demeanour in the destruction of racquets on court - an unthinkable act earlier.

Sports pundits and tennis experts virtually wrote him off and often asked him about his imminent retirement plans; but like a man who knew himself better than anyone else, he always retorted that he would continue to play as long as he continued to enjoy.

Most wondered with irony whether he was enjoying losing now and then. But now we know - that we all know so little about what goes on in one’s mind. He was planning and working out a strategy. What did he do?

He retreated into the shadows, not to lick his wounds but to get better while the world predicted his imminent retirement and handed over some backhanded compliments. He retreated into the background to work on his backhand and backhanded compliments about his talent.

na1_071717022106.jpgFederer was suddenly stopped in his tracks by sheer force of personality and physical play of Nadal. Photo: Reuters

He possibly couldn’t stomach the proposed postscript of pundits and ironic eulogy of epitaph engravers and wanted to write a new script altogether about what actually would be his legacy as a true champion. Because of this singular quality of never giving up and getting better, irrespective of what he does post this victory, his greatness is guaranteed in the gallery of tennis great.

Nadal’s tremendously top-spun, kicking serves reaching chest high, exposed the weary weakness of Federer’s single-handed backhand returns and pundits predicted that only double-handed returns of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have the capabilities to combat this onslaught. Not only the serves, the constant cornering of Federer into left end corners of the court exposed chinks in his armour and his Achilles’ heel.

Both undeterred and determined at the same time, Federer went back to the drawing board to work on geometry! Really! Geometry! Yes.

He worked on his craft specially on seeking new skills to negotiate new angles created by the likes of Nadal and Novak and crafted a new court-craft that untangled the tangles that trapped him by the rising challenges of three of the fab four and the results surprised everyone, specially the critics.

One wishes that another sporting icon and Federer’s friend Tiger Woods similarly comes back to compete and complete his trysts with history by winning maximum PGA tournaments (three short of Sam Snead of 82) and Majors (four short of Jack Nicklaus, the great).

Federer’s never-say-die and fighting-from-no-hope situation is best exemplified in the second set played with Berdych in the semi-final, when he faced two break points and then won the next four points with three aces leaving Berdych slouchily walking from one service corner to another; and then he broke back Berdych in the very next game to close out the second set from which Berdych could never recover and lost the third and final set.

Similarly, in the quarterfinal, he made Raonic look like an average club class player in the first two sets and it was only in the third that he tested the skill set of Federer.

What will typify Federer in history is his sublime, subtle, superb style of play characterised by minimum fuss and by keeping it simple. He serves robot-like without pausing or pondering between serves and works out a strategy much before the ball is hit at the start of the match.

Of course, he adapts and does mid-course corrections but otherwise, he floats in the air (much like Muhammad Ali’s float like a butterfly and sting like a bee maxim) and never gives an impression of strain or forced execution in shot-making.

Seems that, much like his perfect timing when the ball bounces off the racquet, that God had timed his arrival, achievement and accolades for history.

The limping off court of Murray and abrupt end due to the arm injury of Novak reminded us of the dangers of injuries posed by hectic tour schedules. Even Federer was injured a year ago and has since become selective about the schedule and in fact took a complete break from clay court season.

There is already talk of Novak and Murray thinking of being selective in order to survive for a longer period. This debate will go further from here.

There was a time when Federer also faced the question about changing the size of his racquet head when everyone else had bigger sweet spots on theirs but he persisted and his perseverance paid off, proving that if timing is right the size doesn’t matter.

And that is achieved by keeping his head still on each shot as if he is seeing the ball hitting the strings (Tendulkar is also famed for keeping his head still and so did Nicklaus’ coach teach him while perfecting his swing in childhood). It’s not easy.

Try it yourself and imagine that what it takes and that too if done over three to four hours. Only a superman can do it. And history will accord that status to Federer without any grudge till another messenger is sent by god to break the boredom. Remember, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, McEnroe and then Pete Sampras… who came to break the boredom of regularity.

Federer is truly Fed-ex - his nickname in the circuit. He is an express train still running full steam and once he stops, we’ll know the record that he would leave the next generation to inspire them and to instil hope.

And as stated above, like Fed-ex, he is truly a package that packs virtually everything that a superman can do.

And he wouldn’t be known in history as Forehand Federer, like Fraulein Forehand for Steffi Graf, but as a Superman of Sports.

Also read: The failure of Roger Federer


Sushil Kumar Sushil Kumar

Film enthusiast and a senior IAS officer

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