Federer’s Toughest Triumph
Tip your hat to Roger Federer once more. In becoming the first man since Bjorn Borg (1976-80) to win Wimbledon five years in a row, he had to reach back with all of his resources to get the job done. For the first time in the 13 Grand Slam tournament finals he has contested, Federer found himself locked in a five set match. In the ten previous majors he had won, Federer had come through five times in straight sets, prevailing five times in four set clashes.
This time around, the world No. 1 was stretched to his limits by his great rival Rafael Nadal. He came away with a hard fought 7-6 (7), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-2 victory over the indefatigable Spaniard. Federer prevailed primarily because he exploited his opportunities and lifted his game majestically at crucial moments, while Nadal was overanxious in too many tight corners. It seemed as if Nadal almost wanted it too badly while Federer— despite an atypical mild outburst against umpire Carlos Ramos early in the fourth set— was typically composed when the chips were on the line. In plain and simple terms, Federer played the biggest points better than Nadal, and that was the thin difference between the two best players in the world on a day when either man could have won.
Consider this: after losing his opening service game of the match, Nadal was not broken again until the middle of the fifth set while he broke Federer four times in between. Federer displayed his class and confidence in the two tie-breaks, while Nadal was in disarray during those key sequences. In the first set breaker, Federer squandered a 6-3 lead and needed five set points to come out on top. Nadal, however, missed a pair of essentially routine backhands at 6-6 and 7-7 when he had a chance to seize the initiative. Federer was unwavering and, even if it wasn’t pretty, he found a way to succeed.
After Nadal took the second set, both men played a superb third set. That set provided the finest tennis of the match. Neither man broke serve. Federer eventually took an errant ridden Nadal apart in the tie-break with a nearly immaculate display of his talent. But Nadal had two big chances to win that set and take a two set to one lead. With Federer serving at 4-5 and deuce, two points from dropping the set, the Swiss maestro leaped gracefully to produce a wondrous backhand overhead winner, and then held on with some sparkling play at the net.
Two games later, Federer was serving in another precarious position. At 5-6,15-30, he was in a bind. Nadal had excellent court position, and lined up a routine forehand from not far behind the service line. Too eager for his own good, Nadal netted that critical stroke.
And then, after Nadal had taken control of the fourth set with two service breaks in a row at the start, after Nadal had called for the trainer to tape up an ailing knee, the two proud competitors moved on to the fifth set. At 1-1,15-40, Federer’s first serve wide forced an errant backhand return from Nadal. On the following point, Nadal sent Federer scurrying wide for a running forehand, which Roger handled well with a relatively deep crosscourt response. Still, Nadal was set up for another big forehand, which he drove wide as he tried to get to Federer’s backhand.
Federer commandingly held on from there, but at 2-2 he was 15-40 down for the second time in a row. He missed his first serve and then swung the second one wide to the backhand. Nadal should have kept that return in play, but he drove it long. Federer followed up with a brilliant service winner down the T, and went on to hold for 3-2. He knew then he was going to win, and then played his best return game of the match to move ahead 4-2, clipping three superb winners for the break. He followed with three aces in a love game for 5-2, and for all practical purposes the match was over.
Federer did a terrific job of finding a way to win despite having so many chances to lose. He demonstrated that underneath that cool exterior resides a man who is quietly ferocious, who detests losing, who knows that it isn’t always going to be easy. He only added to his stature with this win. As for Nadal, the loss must have been bruising. He had openings to win every set but came up short.
The fact remains that Nadal was much more confident on the grass than he was a year ago. In 2006, when he lost to Federer in a four set final, Nadal hoped he could win but did not really believe he could. This time, he believed he would and was visibly disappointed that he did not get to succeed. And yet, he had a remarkable fortnight, holding back Robin Soderling in a five set match that took five days to complete, coming from two sets down to oust Mikhail Youzhny, cutting down Tomas Berdych, and stopping an injured Novak Djokovic.
That was extraordinarily demanding. Nadal needed to play every day the second week because of the backlog of matches due to the incessant rains. And yet, despite everything, Nadal almost won it all. He has much to be proud of. In turn, he made Federer play the match on his terms. Federer only got to the net 51 times in five sets. Nadal pinned him in the back court and made him rally, and for the most part Nadal was the better man at that. Only some clutch play from Federer in the two tie-breaks and down the stretch in the fifth set saved him. As the old saying goes, Nadal did everything but win.
So both men took something away from the occasion. Nadal showed that he has closed the gap between himself and Federer on the Wimbledon grass, while Federer has not really done that on the Roland Garros clay, losing three years in a row to the Spaniard in four set collisions. But the fact remains that Federer still claimed a title he cherishes more than any other, and he did it under stressful circumstances with Borg sitting there watching him play.
In the end, Federer underlined his greatness again by winning, preventing Nadal from becoming the first player since Borg in 1980 to win Roland Garros and Wimbledon back to back. Let’s hope that Federer and Nadal meet again in the U.S. Open final. How could we go wrong?
There was Andy Roddick late last Friday afternoon, building a significant lead against Richard Gasquet, seemingly on his way to a semifinal confrontation with Federer. Roddick had won the first two sets and was serving at 4-3 in the third. He had not even faced a break point until then. He was playing first rate tennis, attacking at the right times, serving exceptionally well.
And then, inexplicably, he played a loose game to lose his serve. He still seemed
certain to win when that set came down to a tie-break. Roddick had won 18 in a row of those. Surely, he would come through again and move on to the penultimate round. But, he lost that sequence seven points to two. On they went to a fourth tie-break, and Roddick lost that seven points to three. Now in a desperate plight as Gasquet sprinkled the court with one glorious backhand topspin winner after another, Roddick fought as hard as he could but it was all to no avail. Gasquet toppled Roddick 4-6,4-6,7-6(2),7-6(3),8-6.
For the 24-year-old American, this was as bruising a loss as he has ever suffered. He had been a revitalized player since last summer after a long slump, joining forces with new coach, Jimmy Connors, reaching the final of the U.S. Open. In January, he strung together a series of impressive wins to reach the semifinals of the Australian Open before getting crushed by the mighty Federer in straight sets. To be sure, Roddick lost his emotional equilibrium in that match and performed badly. But at least he had made it far into the tournament.
Despite a first round loss at Roland Garros, he came into Wimbledon with a good head of steam after winning the first tournament of the year at Queen’s Club. He did not lose a set on his way to the quarterfinal appointment with Gasquet, sweeping all four tie-breaks he played along the way. He should have closed out that match and earned another crack at Federer, but Roddick let himself down by allowing Gasquet into the match. That was a shame. It is too soon to say that this match will have lasting implications, because Roddick has bounced back before, and he is a very determined competitor with a large heart and arguably the best serve in the game.
But remember that he won his one and only major tournament at the 2003 U.S. Open. If he does not win the upcoming Open in September, Roddick will have endured a four year stretch without claiming a second Grand Slam tournament championship. For a player in the prime of his career, that is not the way it should be. When Roddick won that Open over Juan Carlos Ferrero four years ago, I thought he would conclude his career with at least three or four majors in his collection.
At that time, Federer was Roddick’s chief source of concern, but now the circle has widened. He has to worry about a cluster of other top notch competitors in addition to the great Federer. Roddick will give his all to win the Open, and will keep competing with immense pride and professionalism for a long while. But the loss to Gasquet could linger. I have attended many of his post-match conferences, but I have never seen him look as distraught as he did after the Gasquet defeat.
Roddick will undoubtedly relish the chance to perform in his own country across the summer, to feed off the energy of the American crowds and raise his game in the process. But this will be a crucial stretch ahead. He must raise his game decidely on the hard courts on a surface he has always loved. But it will be no facile task for Roddick to turn things around.
What in the world happened to Justine Henin at Wimbledon? That is the question that many fans are asking now after the Belgian fell apart in her semifinal against Marion Bartoli of France. Henin—who had made it to at least the final in her previous five Grand Slam events—seemed certain to reach another title match at a major when she won the first set of her semifinal from Bartoli 6-1. She had just beaten Bartoli 6-1,6-3 on the grass courts of Eastbourne, and she is such an experienced campaigner that there was no reason to believe Henin would not exploit her match playing acumen again on this occasion.
Henin rallied from 1-3 to go up a break at 4-3 in the second set but thereafter she lost 10 of the last 12 games in a startling 1-6,7-5,6-1 setback. Henin rarely suffers bad losses, and always seems to find the right formula to win even when she is having an off day and her game is not in full flow. To be sure, the wind that day was burdensome to say the least, making it difficult to play with the kind of aggression that has now become such a feature of Henin’s game. And Bartoli had, after all, already ousted No. 3 seed Jelena Jankovic. Bartoli is a tricky player to confront, in many ways like a right handed Monica Seles with her two-fisted strokes and capacity to create acute angles off both sides.
But this was way more about Henin than Bartoli. She played a miserable final set, allowing Bartoli to control the baseline exchanges, doing nothing to take the French player out of her comfort zone. The top seeded Henin lost all passion and purpose and went down rather tamely in the end. What a shame that was. She had beaten an injured yet dangerous Serena Williams in a three set quarterfinal, and had a wonderful chance to make it to her third Wimbledon singles final and perhaps a career Grand Slam. Instead, she lost to a player who had no business putting her out of a major.
Why did it happen? My guess is that Henin overplayed coming into the world’s premier tournament. She had won the French Open, taken one week off, and then retained her crown at Eastbourne. That was too much tennis for the Belgian, who needs to pick and choose her tournaments very carefully to make sure she is at full strength. A year ago, she ran out of gas in the final after taking a 6-2 first set from Amelie Mauresmo. This year, she gave hints after her win over Serena Williams that she was not sure she had the stamina left to play her way safely through two more rounds.
She would probably have been better off skipping Eastbourne and just practicing. Had she done that, she might have had more left at the end of Wimbledon and she almost certainly would have beaten Bartoli. But Henin was clearly not herself, and she denied herself a great chance to capture the only major she does not have in her collection. Nevertheless, I fully expect to see her back at full strength at the U.S. Open, where she could solidify her status as the best woman player in the world.
Two years ago, the pattern was nearly identical. Serena Williams came out of a deep slump, came out of nowhere, and amazingly won the Australian Open. Venus Williams then secured her third Wimbledon singles title later in the 2005 season as the No. 14
seed, saving a match point and winning an epic final over Lindsay Davenport. This year, Serena came into the Australian ranked No. 81 in the world but came away with the title after taking apart Maria Sharapova in the championship match. And, wouldn’t you know it, but Venus Williams walked into this year seeded No. 23 but played some of the best tennis of her career to take the title.
After surviving two matches in the first three rounds when she was pushed to 7-5 in the final set, Venus found her form in a scintillating and often astounding 6-1,6-3 victory over the No. 2 seed Sharapova. From that moment on, she was playing at another level and she went right through No. 5 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova, No.6 seed Ana Ivanovic and the surging Bartoli without losing another set. In that stretch, she has never performed with more consistency and sustained intensity. Her forehand, a liability for a long time—was never better or more reliable. Her explosive first serve was magnificent. And Venus refused to fall into any lapses.
Now she has four championships on the lawns of the All England Club, two more than her esteemed sister. Venus is 27 now, still young enough to record more major triumphs but old enough to know that she does not have forever to make her presence known on the final weekends of the Grand Slam events. The hope here is that she will put it all on the line again at the Open and make a big showing there, which would be the right way to follow up on her latest journey through a major.
Great post Steve.You are right that Federer played the big points much better than Rafa.The serve was also huge for Federer ,24 aces was the key for the world number 1.I have been watching rivalries for more than 30 years and this one is truly among the biggest.I think its only a matter of time for Nadalo being the next number one.