Federer's killer instinct
January 08, 2007 12:00am
ROGER Federer has left Tony Roche with few regrets -- but there is just one, albeit minor.
It is not the fact Federer has yet to snare a French Open title, nor the fact Federer routinely steps in and out of Davis Cup.
What bothers Roche most is a moment of inspired genius five years ago in Basle, Switzerland.
Of all the sublime winners Federer has conjured in a colossal career, Roche rues the fact he was not courtside for the extraordinary, improbable shot the Swiss artist produced against Andy Roddick in 2002.
Roche, like many others, has seen countless replays of what his eyes, if not his brain, initially refused to comprehend.
Pinned deep behind the baseline, Federer had been outplayed. As Roddick surged even closer to the net to barrel a pile-driving angled smash, most of the spectators in Federer's home town could have been forgiven for thinking the point was over.
Not Federer. He leapt skywards before unleashing a laser swat that curled with the spin from outside the doubles court and through the gap Roddick was protecting under the umpire's chair.
At the start of a "rivalry" that now sits 12-1 in Federer's favour, gobsmacked Roddick could do little more than hurl his racquet at his nemesis and shake his head in despair. Little did he know of the misery yet to come.
Even now, Roche says Federer's split-second improvisation is the greatest piece of strokeplay he has ever seen.
"Geez, I've seen a lot," Roche said. "But that one I saw against Roddick was the best. Roger was virtually in the stands trying to get back a smash. I don't know how he did it, but he smashed it back for a winner. I just wish I'd been there to see it live. It's amazing. You can see it on the internet."
Roche, 61, has had the privilege of sitting in Federer's corner since 2005.
Since the birth of a part-time, handshake partnership, Federer and Roche have savoured 23 titles for a staggering win-loss record of 173-9.
Included in that harvest are five major titles, fabulous wealth and a reflected acclaim of the Swiss maestro as the greatest player in the history of tennis.
Roche, a product of Australia's long-dead golden era, was good enough to win the French Open in 1966 and, as the records famously show, once almost denied Rod Laver his second grand slam.
But of all the magicians he either played against, heard about or watched, Roche has no doubt Federer is in a league of his own. Mind-boggling is an expression Roche regularly uses to capture Federer's incomparable artistry. This from a man who took Ivan Lendl and Pat Rafter to grand slam success and the No. 1 mantle.
When Roche travelled to Shanghai in November, he came away convinced no one has ever played the game the way Federer does.
"When he played James Blake at the Masters (Tennis Masters Cup) in Shanghai, I've never seen anyone play tennis like that, ever. The score was something like love, three and four (6-0 6-3 6-4) and it could have been a lot easier. It was just the manner with which Roger played. He was hitting clean winners from ridiculous places on the court. There were times when he should have been defending on some of the big points, but he had the ability to come up with unbelievable winners, and Blake wasn't playing that bad. There was some pretty scary stuff out there."
Roche's career coincided partially with Laver's and started after that of Lew Hoad, the explosive Sydneysider old-timers say Federer most resembles, had been blighted by injury.
Federer had similarities to both men, Roche said.
"I guess Roger is the complete package," he said of the defending Australian Open champion and winner of eight of the past 12 majors.
"He has a lot of strengths and one of them is the number of options he has available. Like Rod Laver, Roger has the ability to be in a dangerous situation and then get out of it by changing things up very quickly. Lew was virtually unbeatable when he was on fire, from what I've been told, and it's the same with Roger.
"He has so much variation and so many options available to him, and then tends to choose the right option, which makes it very hard to match up.
"There are guys who do what they do very well, but the difference is that you know what to expect. With Roger, he can change it up very quickly."
Federer has lost only 15 matches in three years.
With nine majors, he sits behind only Pete Sampras (14), Roy Emerson (12), Laver (11), Bjorn Borg (11) and Bill Tilden (10).
Given an injury-free run in the next three seasons -- he is only 25 -- Federer can expect to challenge Sampras's mark sooner rather than later.
If he does, Roche has no qualms as to Federer's worthiness to sit at the top of the highest mountain.
"In a lot of ways, Roger is a throwback to guys like Laver and Ken Rosewall," he said.
"Roger has huge respect for those guys, for the old Aussies and the Australian way of doing things. I think that came from (his former coach) Peter Carter and hanging around the Aussies on tour.
"He's very much like an Aussie. He follows our cricket team and he's always asking about Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist. He has probably been watching the Test match in Sydney on television.
"In terms of tennis, he's aware of his responsibilities to the game as the world No. 1 and he has a lot of respect for what it means to be No. 1.
"You don't get to be where he is without having a killer instinct, but he carries himself like all the great champions.
"And he's always wanting to improve his game, which makes him good to work with. He's the complete package."