An impregnable fortress in the majors

AP

The Calendar Grand Slam is the Holy Grail of tennis, an achievement to end all achievements, a possession to end all possessions. And however improbable its occurrence sounds in 2010, Roger Federer has been responsible for events unlikelier still — do ten consecutive major finals sound impossible enough; or how about 18 finals in the last 19 Grand Slams; or the 237 consecutive weeks spent as number one? By Kunal Diwan.

Were one to access a window that led right into the cranial recesses of Roger Federer, what would one find? Advanced grey matter? Inspirational neuronal cross-chatter? Kryptonite?

No matter what is sighted and evaluated in his head, Federer now appears to have gone beyond the paltry parameters of hand-eye coordination, motivation, or even comparisons with a purported man of steel in red underwear. At exactly the same setting where he had broken down in 2009 — the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne — the Swiss lifted his 16th Grand Slam career title, beating Andy Murray, another pretender to the throne, and going further down a road most thought was humanly impossible to tread in the Open era.

How many would have thought that it will take less than a decade after his retirement for Pete Sampras’ career tally of 14 majors to be overhauled. Then again, how many would have suspected the causative player to be Federer, a 17-year-old hot-head who was bundled out in the first round on Grand Slam debut by Patrick Rafter at Roland Garros in 1999.

For that matter, who would have believed that the Swiss was capable of coming back to rule the majors after Rafael Nadal had publicly burned and brutalised his enigma for almost three years. Even more than this is about Federer returning to his prime perch — perhaps the prime-est perch ever in tennis — it is about what brought it on.

Three years into a relentless retrieve-and-slam routine, Nadal discovered the hard way that the human body wasn’t quite fabricated in a furnace, that tendons rupture, knees buckle and pain endures. The Majorcan found out that the only way to neutralise the phenomenon of Federer was to resort to an extremely physical game, run down impossible balls, and let his defined sinews take care of the subtleties in Federer’ top spin.

All this came to Nadal at the price of his fitness, an issue that Federer, despite his successful longevity, has rarely had a problem with since his game involves more fluid mechanics than earth moving. The 28-year-old Swiss has preserved himself well for the majors — tournaments that Sampras once said were “all that mattered”. Before Nadal came into the picture, Federer’s dominance over his contemporaries — Andy Roddick and Leyton Hewitt — had been emphatic. The two, supposedly the ‘most promising’ youngsters starting the decade, made the best of their chances after the departure of Sampras and Andre Agassi.

But Federer appeared soon enough and snatched the punch bowl before their party began. The American and the Australian won three majors between them, squatting on the number one ranking for a brief while, before Federer took over.

As of now, he leads Andy Roddick 19-2 (4-0 in major finals) and Leyton Hewitt 17-8. And although young turks such as Andy Murray, Robin Soderling, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Novak Djokovic have recorded the occasional win over the Swiss master — Murray, in fact, leads their head-to-head 6-5 — Federer, aside from the Nadal experience (the Swiss trails 7-13 overall, 2-5 in major finals), has been an impregnable fortress when it has come to the majors.

Since his first win at Wimbledon in 2003, Federer has made 22 Grand Slam finals, winning 16. He has reached the semifinals or better in the last 23 majors, won at least two majors in a year on five separate occasions, and racked up a winning percentage in excess of 87 across the four most prestigious tournaments on Tour.

Statistics apart, it has helped that Federer’s game has been the tennis equivalent of a French surrealist filmmaker at work: shots appear out of nowhere and blend into each other like a grand mosaic of the divine answer. His personality and carriage too have been — for want of a better word — unique: Which champion will enter the arena in a spotless white blazer when it’s bad enough worrying oneself sick over the title defence, leave alone the matter of matching cufflinks? Who else but this doting father of twin girls would have had the audacity to come up with comments such as those he let slip before the 2010 final at Melbourne?

“It’s up to me who wins the match, especially against a player that’s not so aggressive,” Federer said, Muhammed Ali-style, to the Swiss press.

What, then, does Federer have to prove now, especially after a career-completing French Open in 2009 and the record-breaking 15th Slam at Wimbledon — his sixth All-England crown — the same year? Maybe, he is gunning for the biologically irrelevant statistic of becoming the first to win however many Grand Slams after fatherhood. Pete Sampras’ 286-week duration as the number one player also lies within an arm’s reach of Federer, who has already clocked 268 weeks on top.

Or just maybe, Federer is competing for the only record that tennis experts are wary to mention, lest the very act of speaking it aloud jeopardises, cosmically, the contestant’s already unlikely shot at attaining it.

Rod Laver did it when tennis still had a resemblance to the endearing, elitist pastime it was. Steffi Graf did it more recently, in 1988, when her only challenge came in the form of the aging pros, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, and the ever-preening, sometimes-competitive Gabriela Sabatini.

The Calendar Grand Slam is the Holy Grail of tennis, an achievement to end all achievements, a possession to end all possessions. And however improbable its occurrence sounds in 2010, Roger Federer has been responsible for events unlikelier still — do ten consecutive major finals sound impossible enough; or how about 18 finals in the last 19 Grand Slams; or the 237 consecutive weeks spent as number one?

Having started the year with a fourth Australian Open title, Federer is sure to benefit from the absence of a fully-fit Nadal as also from the presence of a gang of talented youngsters whose best usually falls short of matching the Basle native at his most mediocre. His next target is a title-defence in Paris where, despite endless questions on his prowess on clay, he has reached the last four finals, winning for the first time in 2009. That French Open tally may well have been bigger were it not for the stupendous couple of years that Nadal spent serving as the great man’s Achilles heel.

Asked last year before Federer’s tearful ‘Oh God, this is killing me’ act on the Rod Laver Arena, the legendary Australian indicated that he still considered the Swiss to have the best shot at matching his 1969 feat.

“Roger’s certainly got to be odds-on to pull off all four if he clicks at the right time through the tournaments. It’s very possible for him, but he has to have the desire.”

Bring on the desire then. Buddhism and suffering can wait a year.