Monday, June 8, 2009

Federer lets me get some sleep

Last night I stayed up till 1:30am watching Roger Federer play a game of tennis. I don't think I'll ever have to do that again.

In winning the French Open, and claiming the career Grand Slam (joining Andre Agassi as the only male player to have done it since the US Open and Australian Open went hard court), I can now relax and not care quite so much about whether Federer wins or loses.

Sport is a funny thing, and there is no accounting for why a person cares about the fortunes of an athlete or team. Why I would care so much about a guy from Switzerland winning a match in France is somewhat beyond the comprehension of those who don't love sport. During my time I have really only cared about three tennis players - McEnroe (just loved the mad genius about his play), Pat Rafter (made you glad to be an Aussie), and Federer.

Hewitt? Nah I liked him winning, and certainly was not one of the anti-Hewitt brigade. But I was never going to die in a ditch for him. But Federer? Right from the moment he entered the pro ranks I just wanted to watch him play; liked the spirit in which he played. The thing is he didn't always play in that spirit - in fact as a kid he was a bit of a braggart on the court.

When they were both 15 Federer and Hewitt met in the World Youth Cup (sort of a Juniors Davis Cup). Darren Cahill who had seen Federer when he was 13 (and wasn't impressed) was there. He writes:

... the match quickly turned from a potential lesson in tennis development to a lesson in kid management. Both guys were setting new records for racquet bouncing, arguing, smashing balls and just straight out whingeing. Roger would even swear in English and I could assume only that he wanted Peter [Carter - Federer's first coach - an Australian, he died in a car crash in 2002 ] to have no misunderstandings about his frustrations.

Swiss tennis journalist Rene Stauffer was also at the event. Here's his recollection of Federer in the next round (Federer had beaten Hewitt in 3 sets):

... Federer’s athletic maturity stood in stark contrast to his behavior. He was a hot-head. On this September afternoon, his temper exploded even from the smallest mistakes. On several occasions, he threw his racquet across the court in anger and disgust. He constantly berated himself. “Duubel!” or “Idiot!” he exclaimed when one of his balls narrowly missed the line. He sometimes even criticized himself aloud when he actually won points but was dissatisfied with his stroke.

He didn’t seem to notice what was going on around him. It was only him, the ball, the racquet-and his fuming temper-nothing else. Being so high-strung, he had to fight more with himself than with his opponent across the net this day. This dual struggle pushed him to the limit and I assumed he would lose despite his technical superiority. I was wrong. Federer won the match 3-6, 6-3, 6-1.
I wanted to know more about Federer and asked him for an interview. He surprised me once again as he sat across from me at a wooden table in the gym locker room. I feared that the young man would be reserved and taciturn in the presence of an unfamiliar reporter from a national newspaper and he would hardly be able to say anything useful or quotable. But this was not the case.

Federer spoke flowingly and confidently with a mischievous smile. He explained that his idol was Pete Sampras and that he had been training for a year at the Swiss National Tennis Center at Ecublens on Lake Geneva. He also said that he probably was among the 30 or 40 best in his age class in the world and that he wanted to become a top professional but still had to improve his game-and his attitude.

“I know that I can’t always complain and shout because that hurts me and makes me play worse,” he said. “I hardly forgive myself on any mistakes although they’re normal.” He looked in the distance and said almost to himself-”One should just be able to play a perfect game.”

Playing a perfect game-that’s what motivated him. He didn’t want to just defeat opponents and win trophies, even if he liked the idea of becoming rich and famous or both, as he admitted. For him, instinctively, the journey was the reward and the journey involved hitting and placing balls with his racquet as perfectly as possible. He seemed to be obsessed with this, which would explain why he could become frustrated even after winning points. He didn’t want to dominate his opponent in this rectangle with the net that fascinated him-he wanted to dominate the ball that he both hated and loved.

Federer certainly didn't play the perfect game last night - though his first set was pretty impressive. His opponent certainly wasn't anywhere near his level (only Nadal is). Did any of this matter? Not a jot.

No one with any credibility can say this was an easy win for Federer. The way tennis tournaments are set up, means you have to beat the best to win, and if you are not playing the best, you're playing the guy who beat the best. To argue that because he didn't beat Nadal it doesn't rate, is to misunderstand tennis tournaments. They don't consist of the number 1 waiting in the final for everyone else to do decide who is the challenger. Everyone has to win 6 matches to get to the final. If Soderling was so easy how did he beat Nadal, then Davydenko, then Gonzales (who had beaten Murray)? You don't do that by fluke.

There is only one thing you can say for certain about a tennis Grand Slam: 132 players start and everyone wants to be the guy who lifts the trophy.

Here's the list of players Federer has beaten to win his 14 grand slams:

Australian Open: Marat Safin, Marcos Baghdatis, Fernando Gonzales
French Open: Robin Soderling
Wimbledon: Mark Philipoussis , Andy Roddick (twice), Rafa Nadal (twice)
US Open: Leyton Hewitt, Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray

Let's compare that list with the opponents in Pete Sampras' 14 wins:
Australian Open: Todd Martin, Andre Agassi
Wimbledon: Jim Courier, Goran Ivanisevic (twice), Boris Becker, Cedric Pioline, Andre Agassi, Pat Rafter
US Open: Andre Agassi (three times), Cedric Pioline, Michael Chang

Both lists have some great names and also a good share of lucky losers - perhaps three each against players of no real note (Pioline, Martin, Soderling, Baghdatis, Gonzales). What you also see is just how much Agassi's career record was stymied by Sampras!

But like Agassi, and unlike Sampras, Federer, now has the French Open in his trophy cabinet.

For mine though, the greatest of Federer's record is his run of 20 grand slam semi-finals or better in a row. Nadal's best consecutive run by comparison is 5; Sampras did it 3 tournaments in a row; Agassi, 4 in a row; Becker, also had a run of 4; Leyton Hewitt has never done more than 2 in a row.

Over in the women's game though, there is some competition - mostly because in the 80s and 90s women's tennis was a lot shallower in depth. Navaratolova went 18 tournaments in a row - from the 1983 Wimbledon to the 1988 Australian Open. Steffi Graf did it 15 times in a row. Chris Evert made the semi final in the first 34 Grand Slam tournaments she played - though she skipped a lot of French and Australian Opens, so that doesn't count - a streak means turning up to play.

Interestingly, the last time Federer didn't make a semi final was in the 2004 French Open, and he won the three other Grand Slams that year, so it wasn't what you'd call a bad year.

But now that Federer has won the French Open; and now that he has equalled Sampras' record of 14 titles I don't feel such a need to will him over the line. The rest of his career is gravy. Any more wins will be cherries on the top of an already incredibly rich cake. Perhaps now I can relax and just enjoy watching him play, rather than live every point and worry when he gets down 15-30.

Wimbledon starts in a month; and we'll see, but I'm betting I'll be setting the DVD recorder going rather than looking at the clock and thinking "I have to get up for work in 5 hours...".

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