A coronation for the ages

Where Pete Sampras took 12 years to win 14 majors, Roger Federer needed just six for his 15 — a picture-perfect journey that began in 2003 at SW19 against Mark Philippoussis. But history, as the Swiss maestro found out, does not come cheap, not even to someone presumed to be its constant companion, writes Kunal Diwan.

There was no darkness this year for Roger Federer as he toiled to a record 15th Grand Slam title on the consecrated turf of his favourite tournament. The 27-year-old Swiss claimed his sixth Wimbledon title — one short of Pete Sampras, the man he unseated at the top of the Grand Slam tally — in the process imprinting himself even more firmly on the legacy of the great game.

Where Sampras took 12 years to win 14 majors, Federer needed just six for his 15 — a picture-perfect journey that began in 2003 at SW19 against Mark Philippoussis. But history, as Federer found out, does not come cheap, not even to someone presumed to be its constant companion.

Given as much chance in the final as a snowball in hell, Andy Roddick soul-searched his way to the most memorable performance at Wimbledon — first stunning Brit hope Andy Murray in the semifinal and then unsettling Federer by pumping serves into his body with the calmness of a Bushido master.

“Of course, Andy has a chance,” droned Vijay Amritraj before the final, “if he plays the match of his life.” And Roddick did just that. Twice losing finalist at Wimbledon to Federer (in 2004, 05) and possessing an unenviable 2-18 record against the Swiss, the American created a force field of huge serves that appeared to be impossible to crack.

Roddick looked lean and hungry and far removed from an ageing pro on his way out, thanks to coach Larry Stefanki who has been working with him since last December. “I feel like I did give myself an opportunity today. It didn’t work out, but I definitely gave myself a look. He was having trouble picking my serve,” said the American.

With an overall first serve percentage of 70%, the American capitalised on a solitary break of serve in the first set to nose ahead, and then had four points for a two sets to love lead when the magical mystery of Federer’s genius simmered momentarily, handing the Swiss the second set from a precarious 2-6 situation in the tie-break.

Federer won the third set in another tiebreak, this time dominating from the start, and though he now led 2-1, he still hadn’t found a way through Roddick’s armoury of serves.

On went the two players, watched on by the Who’s Who of the modern game — Laver and Borg, Sampras and Santana — and by prominent personalities from an array of disciplines — Russel Crowe and Woody Allen, Henry Kissinger and Michael Ballack, Alex Ferguson and Sachin Tendulkar — as they conducted battle in the final match of the 123rd Championships.

Roddick’s second break of the Federer serve gave him the fourth set, taking the match into a tie-break-less decider, just the way it had happened last year and just the way Federer would not have liked it to turn out, for the Swiss still had no answer to the Roddick serve.

Nobody quite knew where the script was headed when the two players swung each other this way and that on an invisible leash of forehands and backhands. Serving ahead in the fifth, Federer fluffed a crucial break point in Roddick’s first service game, and the American served 11 times to stay in the match, holding serve 37 straight times before cracking in the 38th.

Federer served out his 50th ace to go up 15-14 and the end came after 77 games, the most in any Wimbledon final, when a slew of errors off the Roddick frame brought up the magician’s seventh, and by far the most significant, breakpoint of the match.

It only took a solitary Championship point — as historically important as the one he held against Robin Soderling last month — for Federer to soar beyond any male to have picked up a tennis racquet.

“It was frustrating at times because I couldn’t break until right at the very end. The satisfaction is maybe bigger this time because I couldn’t control the match at all,” said the champion later, surprisingly clear eyed, possibly the first occasion he did not break into tears after a major win.

“I’m happy I broke the record here in some ways because this is always the tournament that’s meant the most to me because of my heroes and idols being so successful here.”

Since his maiden major win here in 2003, Federer has added to his kitty five Wimbledon, five US Open, three Australian Open titles and the priceless Coupe des Mousquetaires captured last month in Paris, taking his career Slam tally to 15, as against Sampras’ 14, Roy Emerson’s 12, and Laver’s and Borg’s 11 titles each.

And the records don’t stop here. While the victories at Roland Garros and here made him only the fourth man in the Open Era to win the clay and grass Grand Slams in the same year, his sixth Wimbledon triumph helped the right-hander reclaim the number one ranking he had relinquished to Rafael Nadal last year after 237 weeks on top.

The Basel-native has now reached the final in 16 of the past 17 Grand Slams. The latest Wimbledon final was a record 20th appearance in a major final. A 15-5 record in major finals, however, rankles just a little when one realises that all five losses are against the currently indisposed Rafael Nadal.

Asked if the Majorcan’s absence belittled his achievement somewhat, Federer replied: “I don’t think it should... I’m just happy I did it by winning the tournament, not just by him not playing.”

Federer is also only the third player to win six or more Wimbledon titles, one behind Sampras and the fossilised William Renshaw. The latest win takes him to 60 tour-level titles, alongside Andre Agassi. So is the soon-to-be-dad, with copious wins on all surfaces, the best tennis player the world has seen?

Comparing players across eras is plagued by hypothetical extrapolations, yet the men who matter have only good things to say. “I certainly thought that Roger would be the odds on to repeat a Grand Slam in the same year…But it hasn’t happened…Nadal came along and pushed him back. I think he (Federer) would have won a Grand Slam if Rafa wasn’t there,” remarked twice Grand Slam winner Laver in The Guardian.

Statistics apart, it helps that Federer’s game is based on the golden principles of movement and mechanics, congruence and coordination, symmetry and balance: a deceptively deadly serve, confounding variations and changes of pace (“A little dare” is how a commentator described his drop volley), perplexing spin, the roll of the wrist, the flowing one-handed backhand punch, the glorious arc merging backswing to contact, an effortless harmony of thought and action all leading to the famous “come on”.

Perhaps his greatest gift is the ability to sublimate two of humankind’s cardinal guiding impulses — beauty and power — and harness them fruitfully on a tennis court. “If he just keeps it going and stays healthy, he could go to 18, 19, actually. The guy’s a legend and now he’s an icon. He’s a credit to the game. He’s a stud.”

Well, when you’ve been called a “stud” by Pete Sampras, there isn’t much left to argue.