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The peak of his powers

wcr
01-10-2006, 04:08 AM
http://observer.guardian.co.uk/osm/story/0,6903,1677739,00.html

On the eve of the Australian Open, the first grand slam tournament of the new season, award-winning novelist and lifelong tennis fan Paul Bailey argues that Roger Federer is not just the best in the world: he is the most complete player in history, a direct descendant of the classic stylists who ruled before brute force squeezed grace from the game

Sunday January 8, 2006


'Seeing Federer at his best is like listening to a master pianist playing a Mozart concerto.' Martina Navratilova

On a warm afternoon in early July 2003, I hurried home to watch the Wimbledon semi-final between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick. I had every expectation that the hard-hitting Roddick would win. I was convinced he would serve aces to get him out of trouble and that he would hit Federer off the court. And, indeed, Roddick did punish the ball with his customary aggression and power. But, in the event, Roddick lost to a player who outwitted him at key moments, playing shots of such delicacy and touch that the American was left frustrated and even astounded. What we were witnessing that afternoon at Wimbledon was the emergence of surely the greatest player in the history of the men's game, the player for whom I have been waiting all my life.

I came to love tennis in a circuitous way. At the secondary modern school I attended in Battersea, south London, from 1948 to 1953, we were required to compete in athletics, play cricket during the summer term and football in the autumn, winter and spring. The school, which was founded in 1700, had a fives court, which was then ruled over by a recently retired army major who delighted in reminding working-class boys such as me that we were not the sons of gentlemen. This quaint game was invented in the 17th century for two players, who hit a very hard ball against the four walls of the court with a gloved hand. I played it once, and once only, all the while trembling as the ball failed to make contact with the protective glove. The appropriately named Mr Stout was full of contempt for my perceived cowardice. I was similarly inept at cricket and had two left feet on the football pitch. It seemed that I would be permanently estranged from everything to do with sport.

That estrangement ended abruptly one afternoon in late June 1953, when I returned from school and turned on the temperamental radio in the kitchen. I listened for a blissful hour or so, as the BBC commentator Max Robertson described with riveting exactness every stroke that was being played on the Centre Court at Wimbledon. He was commentating on the third-round match between the exiled Czech, Jaroslav Drobny, who lived in Britain but had assumed Egyptian nationality, and the American Budge Patty. Drobny was short-sighted, because of an injury sustained playing hockey, and wore dark glasses. He was portly. But he was also a tremendous fighter and seldom more so than on that summer day at Wimbledon. There were six match points in Patty's favour, all of which Drobny retrieved. I understood even then, thanks to Robertson's expert and often near-breathless commentary, that tennis is not solely to do with brute strength or technique. It involves cunning and craftsmanship and, most important, daring. Throughout that match, which ended dramatically at nightfall, Drobny took one impossible risk after another to regain those precious points. I didn't see a single shot, except those that were in my mind's eye.

I had fallen in love with a game I was still to play or see.

On the very first day I stood in the crowd at Wimbledon, in 1958, having queued outside for several hours, I was quite simply in awe of the place but happy to find myself standing at last in the Centre Court. With Robertson's descriptions in mind, I responded in those early days most of all to the 'touch' players, who were so skilled at spins, lobs, backhands and drop shots. The drop shot remains, for me, the most elegant of them all, representing as it does the absolute triumph of brain over brawn.

Wimbledon was then exclusively an amateur event. The All England Club was stubbornly proud of the tournament's status and clung to it until the inevitable end, in 1968. By then the number of amateur players turning pro was overwhelming and the great tournaments were forced to go open in order to retain their significance.

If I'm honest, I saw too many dull matches at Wimbledon, with barely a shot worth cherishing or mentioning. But, from time to time, at the hands of such delicate and diverse practitioners as Mexico's Rafael Osuna, the Indian Ramesh Krishnan and Nicola Pietrangeli of Italy, I was introduced to a different kind of game and saw shots played that I have never forgotten. Osuna, who died in a plane crash in 1969, when he was 31, was the most successful of this trio, winning the United States championship, the forerunner of the US Open, at the age of 25, and two Wimbledon men's doubles finals. He often seemed to slouch about the court, but then burst into energetic life at moments of crisis. He was properly in love with his most inventive strokes, smiling as he played them. That smile was never smug; rather it was as if he were being continually delighted and surprised at his own brilliance.

Pietrangeli was never slim or willowy: he evidently enjoyed his pasta. Yet he was quick when he needed to be and light on his feet, especially at the net. A Wimbledon singles title was beyond his capability, but he usually advanced far enough into the tournament to earn a devoted following. He brought a certain Mediterranean gaiety to the court, a sense that life is fun. How often he lightened the prevailing gloom when both the weather and the serve-and-volley specialists were all too dominant.

Ramesh Krishnan, like his father Ramanathan before him, was brought up to play tennis for its own sake. Touch players such as the Krishnans often came from wealthy families, with little hunger for self-improvement and financial success. I once saw the younger Krishnan take a set off John McEnroe at Wimbledon in the late 1970s and the contrast in styles was palpable: the Indian so genial and relaxed, the American taut and fierce in his concentration. But Krishnan inevitably began to wilt, as the touch players invariably did: the quality they lacked most of all was staying power, the overwhelming urge to win not one match but several in succession.

With the hardening of professionalism and before the arrival of Federer, a certain gracefulness began to disappear from the game. That was exacerbated by the advent of new technology. Wooden rackets had to have small heads and short strings, the frames not strong enough to keep longer strings in tension. Graphite gives more strength and size to the frame, without adding any weight, giving a larger sweet spot. The power of today's game is only partly generated by the players themselves. Much of it comes from their rackets. We had entered the era of the power player and the huge hitter, with devastating serves.

If i had a tennis hero before Federer, it was Ken Rosewall, a diminutive (5ft 7in), courteous player who delighted in surprise tactics. Sheer mental agility kept him at the top for so long, as well as wiry athleticism. His nickname was 'Muscles', because obviously he had none. Rosewall was born in Sydney, in 1934, and, with his doubles partner and close friend, Lew Hoad, had delighted the crowds at Wimbledon in 1956 when they won the championship. They won all four grand-slam titles that same year and became known as 'The Gold-dust Twins'.

Rosewall was the Australian singles champion in 1953 and 1955, then again in 1971 and 1972, when he was in his late thirties; he won the title as an amateur and as a professional. His serve was risible by today's standards, but it was always accurately placed. He turned professional in 1956 and returned to Wimbledon in the early 1970s. In 1974, at the age of 39, he reached the final of both the US Open and Wimbledon, where a young, ferocious Jimmy Connors bashed him off the court. Yet what he achieved, in reaching those finals at 39, is remarkable, a lasting tribute to his talent and indomitable spirit.

When commentators talk or write about Roger Federer they tend to compare him to his immediate predecessors, such as his boyhood hero Boris Becker or Pete Sampras. This is wrong: his play has much more in common with that of Rosewall and his compatriot Rod Laver, great touch players and true artists of the court, not the modern power hitters. Of the two Australians, Rosewall was the more consistent stylist, his drop shots especially exquisite, while Laver's greatest gift was to rescue himself again and again from a pit of his own devising. Even when he had lost the first two sets and was 5-4 down in the third, Laver could never be discounted. Close to defeat, with the stands emptying, he would suddenly change character, all lethargy gone. It was as if he needed the thought of extinction - the humiliation of being beaten by someone so obviously his inferior - to galvanise him. I still marvel at his capacity for transformation, having seen it so often.

It is an art Federer is beginning to master, as great champions must. Yet it remains difficult to describe Federer's brilliance because his shots, though artistic and graceful, are not showstoppers. 'You feel like you kind of have to live up to this [my talent] and play the miracle shots, you know, the crowd-pleaser stuff,' Federer has said of his own game. 'But I kind of stopped with that. All I want in the end is to win the match and not hit the best shot of the tournament, of the match. I feel now that I know in what moment to play which shot. I think this is very important for my game.'

If he has one weakness (that's a weakness relative to him, rather than anyone else) it's his drop shot, although when he has to he executes them better than any other player I can think of. He's been quoted as saying he doesn't 'believe in drop shots', but that may change after his defeat, in five sets, by David Nalbandian in the Masters Cup final last November. The Argentinian sent drop shot after drop shot over the net to defeat the Swiss, with no fewer than five in the second tie-breaker.

There are occasions, watching Federer play, when I seem to be looking at a combination of Rosewall and Laver, because he appears to be in possession of both their peculiar talents: the fluidity of touch that we associate with Rosewall and the absolute refusal to accept defeat that was so characteristic of Laver. The essential difference is that Federer, who belongs in the classic tradition of tennis players, seems to be playing the same shots as Rosewall and Laver but, because of advances in racket technology, with far greater power and strength.

Tony Roche, Federer's coach, says: 'There is a lot [in Federer] that reminds me of Rod Laver.' (The Australian's own verdict is that he 'would be honoured to be compared to Roger'.) It is perhaps no surprise, then, that some of the Swiss's greatest games of recent times have been in defeat - against Marat Safin, in the semi-final of the 2005 Australian Open [see panel, on page 46], against Rafael Nadal, in the semi-final of the 2005 French Open and, most recently, against Nalbandian in the final of the Masters Cup. It is as if simply to beat him rival players must push themselves to the very limit of their talent and this, combined with Federer's refusal to accept defeat, makes for wonderful tennis.

At the age of 24, Roger Federer has already won six grand-slam events (all in the past three years) and a further 27 titles on the men's tour. Even when he loses, as he did to Nadal in Paris, the struggle can be enthralling from virtually the first shot to the last. Even on his comparatively uninspired days, he is still an incomparable artist, usually in moments of crisis when he has to recharge himself. He has that rarest of gifts - the ability to produce a winner that is also beautiful to watch; and the capacity to enchant the crowd, even when the outcome seems a foregone conclusion, as in last year's Wimbledon final against Roddick, which he won so easily.

Federer is disarming on the subject of his own success. 'Tennis, for me, will always stay for the moment the most important thing. Not in life, you know, but it is very important to me... but for me staying number one will be the main goal in 2006.'

There is no doubt that Federer, who began playing aged eight, wants to be the best in the world for as long as he can, but it's interesting to note that he recognises that there is a life for him beyond tennis even if his life off the court is quiet and unremarkable, the very opposite of his flamboyance on it.

So what do we know about him? His mother, Lynette, is South African and his father, Robert, Swiss (they met while working for pharmaceutical companies). He lives in Basle, speaks French, Swiss-German and German, and English, as well as a little Swedish and Italian. His girlfriend,

Miroslava (known as Mirka) Vavrinec, a fellow Swiss, is a former player herself; she was forced by injury to abandon a once promising career. They met at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and she now acts as Federer's agent, invariably there to support him at every match.

To watch Federer today is to watch a player of extraordinary self-possession, which makes it hard to believe that there were once doubts over his temperament. As a junior, he was prone to tantrums and would sulk, throwing his racket about the court in rage and frustration. These displays of self-pity belong resolutely to the past.

He came to understand that fits of petulance were not only undignified but a serious hindrance to progress. This lesson was taught to him by his Australian coach Peter Carter, who was killed in a car accident while on holiday in South Africa some months before his first Wimbledon title in 2003. 'Finding the emotional balance I need has been hard,' Federer said. 'In my early days on the tour, I was very uptight. I felt lots of anger and frustration. And it made me tired. After the second round of a tournament I was already exhausted.'

Today, Federer is not especially demonstrative on court. He has Rosewall's courteous disposition, as well as his skill at the net. Nor does he wrap himself up in a cocoon of privacy, as Sampras often did, to the extent that one stared at those bushy eyebrows for some sign of personality. He has the requisite seriousness of purpose, but at the same time he cannot disguise his relish for the game he loves. Watching him beat the amiable and generous Andy Roddick at Wimbledon in 2003, I knew that the most complete player I have ever seen was performing to the height of his powers. And when he broke down and wept after his defeat of Mark Philippoussis in the final, to win his first grand slam title, I could not have been alone in being moved by the sense of fulfilment his tears expressed. 'It was a huge breakthrough for me,' Federer said of that Wimbledon.

Starting on 16 January, Federer will attempt to win back the Australian crown that was taken from him so memorably by Marat Safin in 2005. I shall be getting up very early in the morning to follow his progress in Melbourne through a tournament that, if he wins, as he surely must, may open the way to his becoming the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to win all four grand slam titles in the same year.

Perhaps another, greater player will replace him one day, but such an artist is difficult to envisage. He is not one of those great players who look invincible, and therefore predictable. If I say that he's like Rosewall, Laver, Osuna and Krishnan all rolled into one, it is only to say that I have been waiting nearly all my life for the arrival of the complete tennis player, and that player is here. He is Roger Federer.

celia
01-10-2006, 04:51 AM
must use that quote as my new sig. :D

thanks for the article. :kiss:

Rogi :hearts: :inlove:

mangoes
01-10-2006, 04:55 AM
Nice Article

alfonsojose
01-10-2006, 12:51 PM
Who needs sexual intercourse when u can get an orgasm watching Roger play ;)

Billabong
01-10-2006, 01:21 PM
Who needs sexual intercourse when u can get an orgasm watching Roger play ;)

:yeah:

adee-gee
01-10-2006, 01:22 PM
I had about 7 birthdays by the time I finished reading that :o

bokehlicious
01-10-2006, 01:32 PM
'Seeing Federer at his best is like listening to a master pianist playing a Mozart concerto.' Martina Navratilova

Perhaps another, greater player will replace him one day, but such an artist is difficult to envisage. He is not one of those great players who look invincible, and therefore predictable. If I say that he's like Rosewall, Laver, Osuna and Krishnan all rolled into one, it is only to say that I have been waiting nearly all my life for the arrival of the complete tennis player, and that player is here. He is Roger Federer.

:worship: :angel: :)

alfonsojose
01-10-2006, 03:14 PM
:eek: Nobody wants to miss a Federer match :tape:

http://www.menstennisforums.com/showthread.php?t=64702

nobama
01-10-2006, 05:55 PM
I had about 7 birthdays by the time I finished reading that :oWho forced you to read it?