Federer and the Masters of the Universe

Federer's record speaks of utter domination these past couple of years, an authority imprinted so emphatically upon his opponents that they were mostly outplayed before they had stepped on court, writes VIJAY PARTHASARATHY

ROGER Federer had, in a sense, spent ages stacking cards one after the other, with infinite patience and precision, until David Nalbandian wandered into the picture last fortnight and cruelly (although some might argue, accidentally) dislodged a lone slice of thin cardboard from its foundation. Thus, in heartbreaking fashion, ended Federer's great winning streak — 24 consecutive wins in tournament finals, a record for all ages, since before the time of the Renshaw brothers in the late 19th century. The marvellous edifice had finally come crashing down.

Jiri Novak, the last man before Nalbandian to beat Federer in a championship match, could not have guessed that his upset win in the 2003 Gstaad final would finish up as part of tennis lore. For two years subsequently, Federer barely put a toe wrong as he went about compiling an astonishing win-loss ratio. His true ascent began at the start of 2004, a year which shaped out extraordinarily for men's tennis: for the first time, since Pete Sampras's retirement, we had a clear idea of the direction the game would take, with Federer winning 10 tournaments. Not since Mats Wilander in 1988 had a player won three Grand Slams in a calendar year. The year-end Masters Cup win, Federer's second in succession, rounded things off nicely. The only way, then, to defeat Federer, as players like Rafael Nadal and Tomas Berdych showed that year, was to catch him out relatively early in a tournament, when his motivation levels had not yet peaked.

Such lessons, unfortunately, were not completely absorbed. For Federer, the 2005 season would prove even more successful, at least statistically: the 24-year-old would win 11 tournaments and finish just one match-win short of John McEnroe's record of 82 in a single season.

Federer's triumph at Wimbledon, for a third successive title, was stunning for its strength of conviction, as was his defence of the US Open title — his sixth Slam — against an in-form Andre Agassi. Added to that, he cut his losses, from six matches the previous year, to four.

Yet, cracks were growing visible: Federer in 2005 was not nearly as invincible as he was last year. In part, that is because boys like Nadal and Richard Gasquet came of age; another reason is powerful hitters like Ivan Ljubicic improved upon their consistency. Federer's serve by his standards seemed fragile, and he nearly lost a couple of close matches against Ljubicic in best-of-three encounters.

The hitherto extraordinarily fit world number one had also to deal with the biggest injury of his career, after hurting his ankle in October. Coming into Shanghai, Federer had barely managed any practice, but the withdrawals of several top players made his cause easier (although Federer at a press conference implicitly criticised Agassi and Nadal for pulling out), and ensured that in a depleted field, he would make the final virtually unmolested.

That ironically proved his undoing. As it turned out, Federer stuttered to victory in all his group matches, losing a set against Nalbandian, Ivan Ljubicic and Gaston Gaudio. Whether, in his condition, he might have beaten a fully fit Nadal or Safin, can only be left to conjecture. Even so, his perfect record, in his third year of round-robin play, is a miracle of sorts, considering he was on crutches until less than a month ago. It offers evidence of mental resilience, and points to his sheer bloody-mindedness.

Then without warning, sluggish was transformed into sublime. The Swiss double-bagelled a horror-struck Gaudio in the semifinal, and suddenly Federer seemed to have made the turn.

Murder it wasn't, but it came pretty damn close to character assassination. Federer's first 6-0, 6-0 result of his career was close to flawless, just as Gaudio's performance was truly vile. As Federer waxed, the Argentine waned. But not even the nine double-faults that the 2004 French Open champion committed (in just six service games) should undermine the quality of Federer's strokeplay during that match. He was Euclides toying with the axioms of geometry, he was Newton playing with his apple.

He strolled into the Cup final as the hottest favourite since a sauna bath.

But Nalbandian on a hardcourt surface was always going to be a tougher opponent than Gaudio. Given his lack of match fitness, Federer needed to conserve his energy and shut out the fluent Argentine early in the best of five sets final — ideally he would have overwhelmed him in the first two sets and then, with the momentum behind him, hopefully carried on for a straight sets win. Instead, things began badly, with Federer losing his serve and having to win the first two sets in physically exhausting tie-breaks.

Incidentally, Nalbandian and Federer have an interesting, if skewed, rivalry going: inconceivable as it may sound, the South American initially tormented the Swiss, leading 5-0 at one stage on head-to-head. But that was, of course, before Roger F. had morphed into R. Federer. Nalbandian would lose their next four encounters — which, to be fair, does not necessarily reflect badly on his abilities.

In 2002, Nalbandian became the first man ever to reach the Wimbledon final on his senior debut in 2002 (and promptly got walloped by Lleyton Hewitt, another baseliner — somewhere up there, a grasscourt deity still cringes at the memory). Since then he'd had a quiet, if consistent, career. His was a regular presence during the second week of the majors; he remains one of the few active players to have made at least the quarterfinals of each of the four Grand Slams, at least once. Before the Masters Cup, however, he had only won three tournaments and his extended presence in the top 15 owed more to the impressive consistency, than singular peaks of achievement. Fact is, Nalbandian played in Shanghai only because Andy Roddick was forced to drop out with a back injury.

Federer, the only player among the top five to start the tournament, now wheezed through sets three and four, and fell behind 4-0 in the decider. The maestro seemed to derive particular pleasure in defying professional obituarists, however, when he came back from the dead to lead 6-5, 30-0, on his serve. But then, in a final twist to the tale, he was broken and lost the final tie-break.

Abruptly, it was over. And in that manner, the fear that had doubtless persisted in the minds of many of his contemporaries — that Federer would not lose another final — was conquered.

Nevertheless, now that the dust has settled, it is somewhat intimidating to step back and examine the framing of the latest legend, because to place Federer's achievement in the proper context, you would have to step outside the boundaries of tennis. McEnroe and Bjorn Borg held the previous record, managing to string together 12 consecutive wins in finals; it is entirely to Federer's credit that he makes two of the greatest players in history look like talented college freshers.

For over three decades, Babe Ruth's 1927 hitting record in baseball — an incredible 60 home runs in a season — remained the benchmark to be overtaken. And already, there is speculation Federer's record might not be broken in his lifetime. His performances in all those finals suggest a unique karmic confluence of genius, big match temperament and good fortune (which is to say, he was lucky to last this long, physically). His record speaks of utter domination these past couple of years, an authority imprinted so emphatically upon his opponents that they were mostly outplayed before they had stepped on court.

Indeed, in another sense, it is as if the card-tower that he built with such skill has only just been completed — not destroyed — with the last card now paradoxically in place. It is as though the defeat has liberated Federer from the wholly futile task of building a spectacular-but-incomplete tower, and allowed him to seek closure in his quest for enduring greatness.