Federer achieves perfection

Written by  //  July 11, 2012  //  Sport  //  3 Comments

It’s 30-30, 5-6 in the second set, of the Wimbledon final. Andy Murray plants his second serve to Roger Federer’s backhand, as he’s done for most of the match. Federer slices it back down the middle. Murray strokes a forehand deep into Federer’s backhand corner. Federer reaches the ball with languid grace, and strikes it cleanly back down the center of the court. Murray powers the ball to the other end. Federer again reaches the ball effortlessly, and this time pushes Murray deeper into his forehand corner. They continue this for a while, pinging balls to different parts of the court, creating varied angle after angle. And then in the blink of an eye, Federer moves forward, like a leopard that was waiting for an opportune moment to pounce. But Murray sends his backhand as wide as he can, finding the tiniest of spaces to beat Federer on his forehand wing. Federer, though, slithers back, and with his body still arced backwards, responds with the gentlest of touches, a sweet, soft kill: the most delicate of drop volleys. Murray scurries toward the ball, and lobs it over Federer. It lands inches past the baseline. Federer has set point. Greatness has never been summed up as eloquently, in the space of a single rally. The crystal clarity of Federer’s movement, the great liquid whip in his strokes—it was as though for that ephemeral moment, the touch of 2005 had poured through his brain and body like some sort of magnetic evocation.

It was tennis at its most beautiful. It was also tennis that ultimately proved beyond Murray’s reach. As hard as he tried—and he did give it the old college try—he came short; but he didn’t as much as fail as Federer prevailed. “I think I played some of my best tennis the past couple of matches,” said Federer,” after the final. Now, if that’s the best tennis that Federer has ever played, then it’s likely the best that anyone has ever played—a sort of tennis nirvana.

For over two years we wondered if Federer can regain his old aura, his old magic—in truth, he had never lost it; he was merely sharpening his game, altering his tactics, and searching for a way to overcome the new challenges. At the French Open in 2010, playing as defending champion, Federer was overpowered by Robin Soderling in 4 sets; and weeks later, against another powerful striker of the ball, Tomas Berdych, another quarterfinal exit ensued, this time on the hallowed grass at Wimbledon. This, we felt, was the beginning of the end. Having made 23 consecutive grand slam semifinals, Federer had now lost in the quarterfinals two grand slams in a row. How could he?

When I watched him through this period, I often wondered what he was doing wrong; maybe Federer himself wondered as much. There was nothing palpably amiss with his game, if his movement had gotten a little less precise, or if he wasn’t as quick as he once was, it certainly wasn’t apparent to the naked eye. But Federer knew he had to reinvent his game—maybe tactically he wasn’t doing what was necessary to overcome the era’s trials. To understand the magnitude of his achievement this past Sunday, we must consider all that has transpired between his defeat to Berdych at Wimbledon till now. The evolution was subtle but definite.

The first thing Federer did to set himself back on the road towards the top was to hire Pete Sampras’ former coach, Paul Annacone. This, considering that he had played for years without a coach, was a clear indication that he recognized the need for reinvention. The speculation was that Annacone—a serve and volleyer during his playing career—would urge Federer to play an even more attacking game, a game that would see him charge forward, and maybe borrow a trick or two from the Sampras manual. But this was conjecture emanating from a romantic—and mistaken—notion. In this power-baseline era, coming up to the net, even behind a heavy serve, could be tantamount to committing suicide. Instead, Federer worked on other aspects of the game, particularly his single-handed backhand, perhaps, the weakest stroke in his gloriously rich repertoire. It’s quite possible that his movement had suffered in recent years, that he wasn’t able to glide across the court as efficiently as he once could, and as a result that he couldn’t run outside the ball to convert enough backhands into forehands, with his usual transcendent elegance.

Victories at the Stockholm Open and the Swiss Indoors followed soon after Annacone was hired, and Federer, it seemed, was returning to his best. At the U.S. Open in 2010, right up until his semifinal meeting against Djokovic, Federer had looked sublime—he had thrashed Soderling, for instance, in three easy, straight sets in the quarterfinals. The semi, though, was the making of the new-Djokovic. Federer played beautifully for much of the match, but with his serve letting him down in some crucial moments, and with Novak playing out of his skin, he ultimately came a cropper. Some analysts said his decline was fast turning from gradual to terminal. But just weeks later, Federer was majestic again—he dismissed Djokovic (who may have admittedly had the Davis Cup Final in his mind) 6-1, 6-4 in the semifinal before beating Nadal in 3 sets (6-1 in the decider).

The year turned, but Federer, it seemed, was still in decline. In Melbourne, he again ran into Djokovic, who had hit serious heights, and was in the middle of one of the hottest winning streaks the game has ever seen. He was returning serve, perhaps, better than anyone ever had; and his ability to turn defense into attack was boggling the mind. But in the French Open semifinal, a few months later, it was Federer’s turn to be inspired. Barring a poor third set, the Swiss was supremely clinical—his court coverage on the day against a rampant Djokovic was as close to perfection as you could hope to see. He was able to more than hold his own on the backhand-to-backhand crosscourt rallies, and maybe whatever he was working on was finally coming to fruition; the resurgence we thought had commenced. But regardless of his form, and any perceived resurrection, he wasn’t going to beat Nadal on the Parisian clay. At Wimbledon, Federer found himself a new problem. He had never lost after winning the first two sets of a grand slam match, but that’s exactly what he did against Jo Wilfred Tsonga in the quarterfinal. Maybe the decline was more a product of mental frailties—the Federer of the old would have dismissed Tsonga, we all opined. It almost seemed as though Federer was being too casual—we criticized the same demeanor that we would have hailed as a sign of his effortlessness had he been victorious.

So off he went to New York. Again, there was nothing conceivably wrong with his game: he sailed through the early matches, including a majestic rout of Juan Monaco in the fourth round in which he lost only 3 games. The loss to Tsonga at Wimbledon was avenged in the quarters, with remarkable ease. “We’ve heard about signs of Roger Federer’s descent from the mountaintop,” wrote Steve Tignor of Tennis.com. “Was this win, with all of its old-fashioned easygoing excellence, a sign of ascent?” It certainly seemed so for large parts of his semifinal against Djokovic—in the first two sets, Federer was at his fluid best; he was covering the court with a supreme sense of authority, and the ball was flying off his racket, particularly off the forehand wing. Djokovic, though fought back, winning sets 3 and 4, but found himself down two match points in the fifth set—what happened next has been all too well documented to have to recount here, but again Federer had come up short in spite of playing some exquisite tennis. Maybe his time really was up. Maybe he was no longer capable of summoning his best when it mattered most. Yes he was still winning other tournaments; he was again terrific in the World Tour Finals at London, but what of the grand slams? What of number 17? Will it ever come?

The evidence of early 2012 suggested it wouldn’t. Again, up until the semis in Australia, Federer had looked superb; he played with such silky elegance that I wondered if it mattered at all whether he won another grand slam. This time, he was on Nadal’s side of the draw, and the two produced another memorable match, but Federer had beaten his great rival only twice in nine meetings in grand slams, and he wasn’t going to improve upon it here. Again, I watched closely, to try and identify holes in his game—but there was nothing palpably wrong; he had merely lost to a rival against whom he had a far inferior head-to-head record to begin with. But it was another semifinal defeat, and another sounding of the death knell.

More of the same followed in Paris, but this time, Federer had struggled (relatively) through the early rounds. He had dropped a set each to Ungur, Mahut and Goffin, and came back from two sets to love down against Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarterfinals. So there he was, in another semifinal, against his most recent nemesis, Novak Djokovic. The Serb, though, almost humbled him on this occasion—an easy straight sets victory. This was Federer’s third consecutive loss in the semifinals of a grand slam—for almost no other player would that have been a sign of a crisis. For his part, Federer kept telling us that he was playing well, that he wasn’t far away—and he was right. He was making the latter half of the second week with supreme ease, and there was nothing noticeably wrong in his game; the rub of the green, though, wasn’t going his way. Yet, we felt, it had to be more than just that. He had gone nine grand slams without triumph; his longest streak since he won his first in 2003. He was playing some terrific tennis, but tennis that was ultimately not good enough for him to overcome his greatest challengers.

What was it then that won him the title at Wimbledon? We can point to a lot of factors not least the silken splendor of his forehand, his superb serving and even the brilliance of his volleying, especially in the final (it certainly seemed like he had gone back in time). But more than anything else, it was what was new about Federer that made the difference, viz. the improvements that he had made to his singlehanded backhand. Murray, more than anyone bar Nadal, has exploited Federer’s chief weakness (his backhand wing) to great effect in the past. Before the final, Murray had a winning record against Federer; his ability to pound strokes deep into that corner had often caused Federer much trouble. But on Sunday, Federer was able to outhit Murray from that wing. He not only played a lot of clever slices, but he also powered his backhands crosscourt with remarkable pace and accuracy. All the dazzling brilliance of his former self wouldn’t have been enough to beat Murray on the day. He needed his backhand to click, and it did—it was not merely sufficient, but vital. In combining something eminently new with a transient return to his greatest days, Federer achieved tennis perfection. Wasn’t it beautiful?

About the Author

Suhrith Parthasarathy is a journalist currently living and writing in New York. Suhrith grew up in Chennai, India and studied law at the National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata. He practiced as an attorney for two years before giving up the law for journalism. He is presently studying for his masters at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. You can find him on Twitter (@suhrith) or on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/suhrithparthasarathy)

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3 Comments on "Federer achieves perfection"

  1. Arghya July 12, 2012 at 7:18 am ·

    Absolutely brilliant piece Suhrith. I must admit I saw him live at the semi-finals in Roland Garros and thought that he had lost that magic, both in his play as well as his desire. But the big W, especially the last 2 sets of the final firmly put those thoughts to rest. What a performance!

  2. Suhrith July 12, 2012 at 1:53 pm ·

    Thanks, Arghya. This sets up the era even more beautifully. I don’t know what’s next, presumably Djokovic and Nadal will step it up a gear now — I already can’t wait for the U.S. Open.

  3. rajasekaran k July 15, 2012 at 10:49 am ·

    i agree that the final was one of the most beautiful moments in a tennis match. i was awestruck and still could not understand how Roger won and Murray lost. it was the latter who played well,in fact better than the former for a longer duration.however, the champion asserted himself when it mattered the most.i feel sorry for Murray as had to face the most consistent genius in the Wimbledon final.the way Roger is playing now,that too in his thirties, title 20 is definitely within his grasp.i bow my head to the best tennis player in the world not only for his tennis skills,but also for his impeccable behavior in tennis courts.

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