The lost art of tennis
Roger Federer of Switzerland shakes hands with Michael Llodra (L) of France after their match at the Rogers Cup tennis tournament in Toronto August 12, 2010.
Bruce Arthur, National Post · Thursday, Aug. 12, 2010
TORONTO — The last time Roger Federer played Michael Llodra, they were just boys, 18 and 19 years old, freshly professional. It was the quarter-finals of a 1999 minor-league Challenger event in Brest, in Llodra’s native France; Federer prevailed 6-3, 6-3 and went on to take the tournament, the only Challenger he ever won. He went on to bigger and better things, in case you hadn’t heard.
On Thursday, a lifetime later, the two men met again in the third round of the Rogers Cup at York University, on a beautiful, breezy day. They are 29 and 30 now, with wives, children, history. But for an afternoon — with Llodra’s old-school serve-and-volley game drawing out Federer’s matchless creativity — tennis was truly fun again.
“His technique is wonderful,” Federer said on the court after his 7-6 (2), 6-2, spin-and-grin victory. “It was a pleasure to play against him again.”
It was a pleasure to watch, too. Llodra has spent the past decade bouncing in and out of the top 100 until rising into the top 35 this year, and the two men were dead even until the first-set tiebreak, in which Federer seized control for good.
But the Parisian’s style changes everything — it creates different angles and a different challenge, and Federer was engaged. Twice, the former No. 1 hit looping, full-pace forehands that barely cleared the net and dove like kamikaze pilots at Llodra’s dancing feet; once, Federer hit a tight, truncated lob from the mid-court that sailed seamlessly over Llodra’s head.
Llodra, meanwhile, delivered bursts of unexpected joy. A pirouette half-chip here, a between-the-legs volley there, and one rally in which the two men seemed to tacitly agree that nothing after the serve would break the speed limit, and instead exchanged floating slices and dreamy drop shots.
And trailing 4-1 and 15-40, Llodra slipped in the first underhanded serve Roger Federer has even seen in a match that matters. The serve spun wildly away from the Swiss maestro and off the end of his racquet, and both Llodra and Federer laughed as the sun-bleached crowd gasped, then applauded.
“I just want to make something special,” shrugged Llodra, in the Gallic style. When asked if he had ever tried an underhand serve before, he smiled and said, “Yeah. But not in the match.”
At the professional level tennis can be a grim march, a merciless meritocracy, all pressure and demands. Federer handles it better than most, but remember how he wept after losing the 2009 Australian Open to Rafael Nadal? The way he was shaken by the epic loss to Nadal at Wimbledon in 2008? To be No. 1 requires ceaseless focus and grace under pressure, over weeks and months and years.
“I’d rather be focused and be around for many matches than, you know, play the clown and be only here for one match,” Federer said. “It’s always a fine line to know how much can you really laugh, how much can you have fun. But today, I know my opponent so well and, having a lot of fun points, I think it was really a possibility to have more fun out there.”
Not only that, but the game has become dominated by booming baseline play, which Federer never loved, but mastered anyway. Llodra’s chip-and-charge style is gravely endangered, and will soon be extinct.
“There were some good [shots] out there, some unusual shots, you know — like the lob, the passing shots, the little flick stuff,” Federer said. “I remember that’s how I played the whole time coming up, and then I had to improve so much on my baseline game because all the guys leading the rankings, like [Juan Carlos] Ferrero and [David] Nalbandian and [Lleyton] Hewitt and [Marat] Safin, and [Andy] Roddick even — I mean, they were all playing from the baseline.
“It is fun playing that kind of a style once in a while. I kind of miss it, obviously.”
When it was over and done, Llodra and Federer embraced at the net, smiling like the old friends they have become over years on the same Tour. A minute later Llodra removed his shirt, walked over to Federer and in French, asked for his in exchange. Federer laughed and complied, stripping off the salmon pink number he’ll be sporting all week.
“I don’t know where my head was when I chose pink, but I like it, you know?” Federer said later.
Llodra affectionately patted Federer on the cheek and strolled off the court bare-chested, carrying his trophy. Federer, still grinning like a schoolboy, quickly donned a replacement. “He’s won a couple of tournaments this year; I’ve only won one, so he’s doing better,” he joked in the on-court interview.
“I’ve known him 16 years, and he’s older [by] one year, so I couldn’t say no,” Federer said afterwards. It was the third time he had been asked by a fellow player, he said, and he has complied each time. “The guy one time, it was in the elevator coming back from the match, in Bangkok. He was a Brazilian.”
“You know, for me, Roger is in the legends,” Llodra said, “so it’s a good present for my kids. I talk in French, but I say, ‘You have no [choice]. Give me your shirt.’”
Life could become grim again soon — Federer will face No. 7 Tomas Berdych today, who has beaten him twice this year, including a psyche-shaking loss in the quarter-finals that snapped Federer’s run of six straight titles at Wimbledon. The pressure never truly goes away.
But for an afternoon after all these years the old times were back and the two men were like boys again, making the ball dance, laughing in the sun.