Sunday, June 7, 2009

Greatness adorn him

As a day it was rather forgettable. Cold, windy, overcast, and occasionally wet.

As a match it failed to reach the heights of what was a fabulous Friday at the French Open, when both men’s semi finals travelled the distance of five-sets and produced two of the great semi final contests seen in modern French Open history.

As an occasion however, it belongs among tennis’ pantheon. Roger Federer finally claimed the one Grand Slam title he so desperately craved, and in doing so he achieved a list of milestones unlikely to be seen again by this generation of tennis fans.

Federer was too experienced, too classy, and simply too strong in beating Robin Soderling 6-1 7-6 6-4. In doing so he won his 14th Grand Slam title which equals the record held by Pete Sampras. He becomes the sixth player in men’s tennis history to complete the career Grand Slam, behind Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, and Andre Agassi. And it was only fitting that the latter was on hand to present the Musketeers Cup to Federer, as the Swiss maestro joined the American as the only players to have won Grand Slams on three separate surfaces.

It was amazing to see Soderling’s reaction at the trophy presentation. It’s hard to recall a happier runner-up, who felt genuinely privileged to be a part of history. In some ways it explained his performance on this day.

The 24-year-old Swede was visibly nervous. After the toss he was unaware of the pre-final ritual of posing for the cameras. Federer quietly pointed him in the right direction, as only a veteran of 18 Grand Slam finals can.

Soderling’s nerves were evident from the first point when he pulled a backhand wide. He dropped his first service game and you feared the worst. The start was always going to be crucial. Soderling had played without fear the whole tournament. Federer had lost the opening set in four of his six encounters. It had be five of seven if this was ever going to last the distance.

That never looked likely. Federer was sharp. Even several netted backhands in the opening game came out of the middle of the racquet. He held his opening service game to love, broke Soderling a second time and the first set was over in 23 minutes.

The wind was a factor. Federer used it to his advantage. Some of his drop shots were pure. He used them intelligently after he pushed Soderling onto the back foot. The Swede had dictated points throughout the tournament, standing high on the baseline and dusting the corners in his opponents half. But here he was dictated to, and you sensed he had played his final already. If not last Sunday against Rafael Nadal, then Friday against Fernando Gonzalez where he fought back from 4-1 down in the fifth set.

Soderling upped the ante in the second set, but he could not make a dent in Federer’s serve which has been his most outstanding feature during the tournament. People speak of Federer’s surgical forehand, and his breath-taking single-handed backhand but his serve is arguably his strongest weapon. When he needs it he turns to it, and it never fails. He served 16 aces and only two double faults for the match and won 85 per cent of the points when he landed his first ball.

Federer’s serve was the key to a clinical second set tiebreak which he won 7-1. The world number two’s celebration at that point was notable, Soderling slumped in his chair with his towel draped over his head no doubt sensing that ever fear he held coming in had eventuated.

It was a feeling he did not shake in the opening game of the third set. He was broken and could not return fire. Twice he had break points in the set, twice he failed. Federer had tightened in trying to close it out clearly sensing the enormity of the precipice on which he stood. He sailed a swinging forehand volley long at 30-all when serving for the match. But he pulled it together; again the glue was his serve.

One Championship point was all that was required. Federer slumped to a prayer position on his knees when the moment came, a mirror image of his first moment of major triumph at Wimbledon in 2003. The difference being this time - for the first time - when he walked to the net to shake his opponent’s hand, his knees were covered in clay.

There will be those who question the calibre of his opponent on a day that could well define him as the greatest tennis player in history. Nadal, his conqueror on not only this surface but in five Grand Slam finals in three different cities, was watching on television in Majorca. But Federer has made four French Open finals, one more than either Laver, Emerson, or Agassi, none of which reached theirs in consecutive years. The fact that he was beaten on three of those occasions by a player whom most will concede is the best clay-courter in history is irrelevant.

Federer’s achievements in the game have been unparalleled. No one can deny him his grandest moment, and arguably the grandest moment in the men’s game. He will start favourite for both Wimbledon and the US Open later this year. He needs just one for a 15th Grand Slam title. And on that day you will be hard pressed to find someone to dispute him being proclaimed as the best we have ever seen.

No comments: