Beyond a boundary

Our unease about admitting Federer to the pantheon of first-tier gods lies in our fundamental mistrust of the present. The best judgment lies in hindsight, yes, but Federer has proven beyond doubt that he possesses the finest all-round game ever, writes Vijay Parthasarathy.

Roger Federer was making gurgling noises around the time John McEnroe was transforming men's tennis into something beautiful; he was a spoilt brat throwing tantrums on tennis courts when Ivan Lendl displaced the American and replaced serve-and-volley tennis with a topspin-heavy baseline game; he was a talented, and by now tranquil, junior with a distinct flair for shotmaking when Sampras was whipping on-the-run forehands and just starting to assert himself on English grass.

There were early encouraging signs. But in tennis, as in any other sport, little distinguishes the best from the very, very good, and Federer, like dozens of his gifted fellow athletes, spent the first few years on the Tour bouncing from one frustrating result to another, seeking a way to minimise unforced errors and optimise on his shotmaking skills.

Then, in 2001, he faced Sampras at Wimbledon. A clash of generations, the result was the first of many signposts that pointed Federer towards greatness. Eight Slam trophies later, the fellow's not doing too badly. The Swiss is coming off another dominant year, bolstered by three Slams and the last Masters Cup triumph, and surely, we have witnessed the confirmation of a legend.

At the start of the 2006 season it appeared as if Federer was slowly yielding ground and succumbing to the pressure exerted by his peers. Left-handed Rafael Nadal relentlessly targeted Federer's backhand and extended his domination over the Swiss particularly on clay; applying this mental edge, the Spaniard even sneaked a win on hardcourt and managed, most unexpectedly, to push Federer on grass. Another loss — the only one this year to a player other than Nadal — came against Andy Murray, the talented but overhyped Scot, who drained the world number one through a process of attrition, then knocked him out with a lucky punch.

The sheer impossibility of maintaining his obscenely high standards was taking its toll on Federer. Meanwhile, opponents whom he could earlier swat away with a flick of his forehand, were showing spirit, and focusing on earning his scalp. With Jimmy Connors as his coach, Roddick was finding new purpose. Ivan Ljubicic and James Blake, aggressive shotmakers, were pushing Federer to tiebreaks consistently.

Despite this, Federer managed to reach the final of all the four majors, something he hadn't done to date. He overcame Marcos Baghdatis in Melbourne; at Roland Garros, against his familiar nemesis, Nadal, he lost momentum after an emphatic start. As Federer's groundstrokes began to disintegrate, his face grew more sullen; he gave away free points and generally looked like he'd stopped trying very hard, much like a rookie whose ego can't cope with the fear that his best might not prove good enough.

At Wimbledon, however, he came right back at Nadal, who, entirely to his credit, made this a better contest than the French final. In between calling obsessively for his face-towel and earning scorn for time-wasting, Nadal slugged his groundstrokes from closer to the baseline, and even made the occasional, if ungainly, net sortie. He was an infant taking his first painful gasps of air, but very much in the match for the better part of two sets. In the end, he did not lose for want of effort.

The Wimbledon final was what turned Federer's season around. Indeed, it may not be an exaggeration to say the memory of this match will impact on the rest of his career.

For a man accustomed to winning, the occasional loss can provide cause for deep introspection. Marat Safin's win over Federer at the Australian Open last year prompted the hypothesis that the latter's aura would finally wane. Nothing of that sort happened, because Federer possesses inner confidence, inner game, the capacity to rebound after an emotionally draining defeat. Nadal was proving to be a tougher opponent, though, a more persistent one than the Russian. As Federer himself admitted in his Wimbledon post-final press conference, had he lost the match, his confidence might have taken a critical hit. Mentally, he would have been sunk. Federer went on to dominate the field at the US Open, while Nadal's own season was subsequently blighted by injury and lack of match practice.

In the Masters Cup final, then, Blake had the misfortune of running into a man who had, the previous evening, taken care of his personal demons. This was Roger Federer hitting winners at will, down the line, across the middle, with a Buddha's detachment.

This is the power-baseline era, but Federer has shown, mainly through his preternatural ability to anticipate and manipulate his opponents' shots, through his uncanny use of peripheral vision to wrong-foot them, through his exquisite positioning, that intelligence and subtlety count for something.

Federer is ascending a sharp curve, he is defining and refining the direction that tennis is taking. Yet, in the larger scheme of things, the game itself is coming a full circle. This happens as a natural process every two decades or so, and by the time Federer is done the wheel will have been reinvented, reinforced. David Foster Wallace writes, "In the same emphatic, empirical, dominating way that Lendl drove home his own lesson (in the mid-to-late 80s), Roger Federer is showing that the speed and strength of today's pro game are merely its skeleton, not its flesh."

This is a Federer approaching the peak of his career, a Federer who must surely believe the Grand Slam isn't out of his grasp. Whether Federer is the finest player ever is hard to judge. Such slants are subjective beyond a point, and it is of course meaningless to draw comparisons across eras. After his win in Shanghai, Federer is guaranteed to last as world number one for more than 160 weeks; he will break Connors' three-decade old record. Does that qualify him, in one sense at least, as the greatest ever? The counter-argument is frequently made that Sampras had to contend with a better field, the only reason he didn't break Connors' record; to many, his seven Wimbledons hold special significance because men's tennis in the mid-90s was more competitive. The same proponents also contend that Federer will only supersede Sampras if and when he overhauls the latter's tally of 14 Slams. But it is unfair to hold Federer accountable for the inadequacies of his opponents, and even more so, to place the man on a pedestal merely on the basis of an arbitrary number.

Federer's position as the greatest player in history (for what that is worth) shouldn't be decided on statistical parameters alone. Any macroscopic assessment of a player's quality should be made on the basis of his or her contribution to the development of the sport. Certainly, the Swiss has already exerted serious influence on tennis. He has simultaneously exposed the limitations and extended the possibilities of the modern game, and by that yardstick McEnroe, Sampras and Federer form a kind of holy trinity.

Our unease about admitting Federer to the pantheon of first-tier gods lies in our fundamental mistrust of the present. The best judgment lies in hindsight, yes, but Federer has proven beyond doubt that he possesses the finest all-round game ever. Not only that, he has always made it a point of honour to beat Nadal from the baseline and Henman, at his best, with touch — he consistently beats the best at their own game.

Quite a case he has made for himself, this Federer.

How far can he go? It will be painful to watch Federer on the decline, fascinating to see who picks up his legacy. It could be Nadal, owner of the quickest pair of legs in tennis history and a game entirely antithetical to Federer's, except players who rely a tad too heavily on speed and fitness tend to burn out earlier. At 27, James Blake has blossomed a little too late. At this stage he might find it hard to absorb patience into his gameplan, a fact that was painfully in evidence during the Masters final; his career is most likely doomed to coincide with Federer's. The Greek Cypriot, Baghdatis, came of age this season. The most impressive aspect of his game was not so much his shotmaking, as his deceptively quick movement. He will face bigger challenges over the next couple of seasons. Then, there is Richard Gasquet. Federer, no doubt remembering his early struggles to find his feet on the Tour, sees a lot of himself in the exceptional but currently-underperforming Frenchman.

Any of these players could evolve into a world number one. Or, who knows, perhaps, even as we speak, the next genius is drooling over his bib and gnawing at his grandfather's tennis racquet, distractedly watching Federer on television out of the corner of his eye.