Champion of champions

AP

A fantastic fortnight in Paris has not only taken Roger Federer to the very summit but also, more importantly, it might have put an end to the long-running debate about who the greatest player of all time is. The Fed stands alone. Truly alone, as only a handful of athletes in sport get to be, writes Nirmal Shekar.

Psychologically rejuvenated and powered by the adrenaline rush triggered by the shocking early departure of a mighty Majorcan who had wormed his way into his mind on the red clay of Roland Garros, Roger Federer turned a nightmare stage into his own private theatre of dreams at the French Open.

None of his 13 other Grand Slam titles could have had as much historic significance and emotional resonance for the Swiss maestro as the one that saw him complete a career Grand Slam — before Federer, only Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Andre Agassi had managed to win all four majors — and pull alongside the great Pete Sampras with 14 titles.

The French crown was the one missing trophy in his impressive collection of Grand Slam silverware and it was something that the Swiss maestro had sought with a missionary zeal ever since he first set foot on Paris’s slippery terre battue 11 years ago.

For an outrageously gifted player who has been celebrated by the sports media everywhere with a certain awed indulgence ever since he won his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2003, this is a title that has come after several agonisingly heart-breaking moments at the clay-court Slam.

As long as Rafael Nadal was around in the vicinity, flaunting his biceps and vicious topspun forehands, Federer was left feeling like Sisyphus. If the world champion’s shocking fourth round defeat threw Federer a lifeline, then the departures of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray gave the five-time Wimbledon champion a further boost and he grabbed the unforeseen opportunity as only great champions do.

Many years from now, when he nostalgically recounts to his grandchildren on a wintry Swiss night by the fireplace his famous conquest in Paris, Federer might still continue to ponder the irony of the circumstances in which it was achieved. For, his victory at Roland Garros has come at a time when pundits of the game believed it would be wiser for him to be eyeing an easy chair rather than the silver Coupe des Mousquestaires, a trophy that would be — or, so they believed — the private property of his Spanish clay-court nemesis for the foreseeable future.

But then, if this was not quite the customary Federer waltz to victory, then the 27-year-old Swiss would hardly lose sleep over that fact. He may have had as much use for the former pro Brad Gilbert’s popular book Winning Ugly as Richard Dawkins — evolutionary biologist and best-selling author of The God Delusion — might have for the Bible, but over the last two weeks, at least, Federer was more concerned with getting to the finish line any which way, Gilbert-style, than about aesthetics. Match after match, he struggled to impose himself on lightweight opponents, yet managed to dig deep and find ways out of messy situations with his heroic self-belief.

“It might be the greatest victory of my career. It takes away so much pressure. Now, I can play in peace for the rest of my career,” said Federer on winning his first French title.

When Sampras beat his archrival and friend Andre Agassi in four sets to win his 14th Grand Slam title and then indicated that he may have played his last match as a professional, few would have imagined that we would witness the conquest of Mount Sampras in less than seven years’ time.

But that is because human imaginative powers are limited by our pattern-seeking minds. And it is almost impossible for anyone’s imagination to have dreamed up a phenomenon quite like Federer without actually having experienced the brand of tennis brought to life by the magical powers of the Swiss genius.

Could anyone have imagined a Mozart — of what he was capable of — without actually having experienced the intensity and sublimity of his music? It might have been terra incognita.

If humans are pattern-seeking animals, then great athletes make a mockery of our genius for pattern recognition. We experience life, learn from it and then say, ‘this is likely’ and ‘that is unlikely.’ But athletic genius respects no pattern; lessons of history matter not to men such as Federer. They write their own scripts, bold, imaginative, cliche-less masterpieces of jaw-dropping brilliance.

Fourteen Grand Slam titles in less than seven full years! Twenty Grand Slam semifinals in a row! The great man himself clearly saw the achievement for what it was.

“What he has done over the past five years has never, ever been done — and probably will never, ever happen again,” said Sampras. “Regardless if he won there (Paris) or not, he goes down as the greatest ever. This just confirms it.”

Roy Emerson’s record of 12 Grand Slam titles stood for 32 years before Sampras tied it in 1999. Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors is still unbeaten in golf although you might not get handsome odds for Tiger Woods failing to match/surpass that mark before he calls it a day.

It is axiomatic in sport that great records are not quickly, or easily, matched. This is precisely why Federer’s achievement is mind-bogglingly sensational. Since he began his Grand Slam harvest in July 2003 at Wimbledon, only five other men have won major titles — Rafael Nadal (6), and Andy Roddick, Gaston Gaudio, Marat Safin and Novak Djokovic (one each).

Then again, from the very beginning, whoever the opponent, whatever the Grand Slam, Federer always knew, deep inside, who he was really playing against. In his mind, there was only one worthy opponent: Sampras. Now that the Swiss genius has pulled alongside the great American, you’d think that the historic match is tantalisingly poised at 6-6 in the fifth. Unfortunately, there is only one player left on court now and the genial Sampras will know that this is one contest he would never be able to win.

“It looks pretty tough to beat now with 14 majors, and I am sure he is going to go on and win a lot more,” said Sampras.

When he left the Australian Open in tears last January, after failing to tie Sampras’ record, few would have believed that Federer would put that disappointment behind him and realise his dream in the year’s second Grand Slam. What is more, he failed to win a single tournament before beating Nadal in the Madrid final.

Now, a fantastic fortnight in Paris has not only taken Federer to the very summit but also, more importantly, it might have put an end to the long-running debate about who the greatest player of all time is.

The Fed stands alone. Truly alone, as only a handful of athletes in sport get to be.