Roger Federer bids for Olympic glory to complete the set

July 26, 2012

By Anupam Pratihary

Tragedy may not have been a constant companion as it was in Vincent van Gogh’s life, but Roger Federer’s game has the genius of the maestro’s work. If the Dutch artist’s canvases had yellow as its dominant colour, reminiscent of the sun, the Swiss player’s strokes pack all the sun’s brilliance.

Both artists inspire as much awe as disbelief. From 2003 to 2012, Federer achieved what history had never witnessed: 17 grand slam singles titles and 287 weeks at the top. Now he has his sights set on Olympic glory, the one big prize to so far elude him.  The London Olympic tennis takes place in the next two weeks at a familar venue — Wimbledon.

It wasn’t quite a setting-the-court-on-fire sort of start for the unathletic-looking lad from the tennis backwaters of Switzerland. After dominating the junior ranks, Federer cut his teeth in men’s tennis in 1998. He showed promise but little more 

Success came in 2001, when he left the tennis world speechless with his triumph over the seven-time champion Pete Sampras at the Centre Court of Wimbledon. The first major title followed two years later when he held the Wimbledon trophy aloft after defeating Mark Philippoussis.

Federer’s ascendency coincided with the decline of two of the greatest players and rivals: Sampras and Andre Agassi. Evidently, the era of Sampras’s power and Agassi’s craftiness was making way for a more evolved form — Federer’s elegance. And with it came Swiss precision.

What makes his game special is remarkable anticipation and movement, which help him to read his opponents’s next shot a tad early and be there for a winner.

Federer has all the ingredients of a rare champion.  After his 2003 major breakthrough, it was the time to consolidate and 2004 saw him do just that. He tormented his opponents on his way to three major titles: Australian, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. On Feb 2 that year, he climbed to the summit of the tennis rankings and owned it for 237 weeks until Aug. 18, 2008. Domination of such proportion was never witnessed in the annals of the game.

The seed of one of the greatest rivalries was sown in the same year. In the Miami Open, the Swiss champion was steamrolled by a 17-year old Spanish boy in the final. The scoreboard read 6-3 6-3 in favour of Rafa Nadal and a phenomenal rivalry was minted that day.

 Tennis, on grass and hard court, was a breeze. But red clay remained a mystery for Federer. All the sublime skill and vitality got inexplicably neutralised on the slow surface. It began to happen with such agonising regularity that experts suspected his game and temperament were not right for the clay court grind. In hushed tones, Federer was getting compared with Sampras and Becker; clay court remained a lifelong enigma for them too.

Nadal won his first French Open title in 2005 by defeating Federer in four sets. He almost made it a habit, taking home the Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy the next three years. To Federer, and to the world, a career Grand Slam looked impossible. Well, almost.

Conquering crisis defines a champion. In 2009, Federer did it. He won the French Open by beating Robin Soderling, who earlier knocked out the defending champion Nadal in the fourth round.

With the win, Federer tied Sampras’s feat of 14 Major titles. A few weeks later, he overtook his American idol in style. In a pulsating five-setter – the  longest Wimbledon final – Federer defeated Andy Roddick for his sixth All England title.

But winning for Federer came with diminished frequency. Apart from dominating the clay surface, Nadal found a way to win on grass and synthetic courts. The muscular and fit Nadal deconstructed Federer’s game. A rising ball to his backhand was found to be a chink in Federer’s armour and the Matador of Mallorca exploited it. The word got around and even Novak Djokovic began to prosper against it.

The fitter and faster duo now posed a greater opposition. Moreover, unforced errors started creeping into Federer’s impeccable game, making him more vulnerable. It showed in the fact that Federer had to struggle for two-and-a-half years to win his Major no. 17.

It was worth the wait, though, for it came just a few weeks ago at Wimbledon  — his spiritual home.  With it returned the world number one crown. “I never stopped believing,” said Federer. Nor did we. Now he returns to Wimbledon for another shot at glory.

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