Federer: the Wimbledon heir to Sampras?

If he manages to keep himself on the straight and narrow, as his personality suggests he will, Roger Federer (pix, below) can go on to become a multiple champion of Wimbledon and perhaps the most dominant world No. 1 — he is not yet there, though — since Sampras, writes NIRMAL SHEKAR.

THERE was a point during the men's singles semifinal match between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick at Wimbledon last fortnight when the Swiss player hit an approach shot and moved forward. Roddick's reply came dipping in over the net and Federer was caught in an awkward position.

Mere mortals would have lost that point. Good players would have attempted something out of the ordinary. Great players might have got the ball back in play.

As it happened, Federer, with a magical flick of the wrist, half volleyed it for a crosscourt winner. It was a shot of genius, pure genius.

In three decades of watching tennis at the highest levels, this writer has seldom seen a shot quite like this. And to the last man, woman and child, everyone in the packed centre court put their hands together to celebrate that spark of genius.

It was something of a revelation as Mark Philippoussis, the runner-up, played himself back into the big league. With players like Sampras, Ivanisevic and Rafter out of the game, Philippoussis' re-emergence as a top player is certainly good news for men's tennis. -- Pic. ALEX LIVESEY/GETTY IMAGES-

Greatness does not require a quorum; but, on that Friday, Wimbledon welcomed with open arms a player with a marvellous gift for dextrous improvisation, one who can turn prose into poetry.

As Federer's play soared to regal heights on that day, and then the fourth seed went on to ride the momentum to beat a rejuvenated Mark Philippoussis of Australia in the final two days later, it was difficult not to rejoice in the arrival of a very worthy heir to the legacy of Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Boris Becker and the greatest of 'em all, Pete Sampras.

If he manages to keep himself on the straight and narrow, as his personality suggests he will, Federer can go on to become a multiple champion of Wimbledon and perhaps the most dominant world No. 1 — he is not yet there, though — since Sampras.

In my three decades at Wimbledon, I have seen only two players who were as gifted as Federer, if not more. The first was John McEnroe who could find impossible angles and thread a pass through the eye of a needle. And the second was the peerless Sampras with whom, till I die, I would hate to compare any other player.

Serena Williams' success in the women's championship was rather more predictable than anything else that happened over the second weekend of Wimbledon. -- Pics. PHIL COLE & ALEX LIVESEY/GETTY IMAGES-

It was a fortnight during which Federer not only played with the self-belief of great champions but also had the air of an explorer who had found new vistas in his own heart and soul.

Explosive serves, spectacular return winners, an array of rapier like passing shots, volleys knocked off with insolent ease...all this topped by a wolverine will to win. There was simply nothing that Federer could not do on the court with the minimum of effort.

He is inarguably the most talented 20-something in men's tennis today. And Federer proves too that grace and athleticism need not be mutually exclusive. He is the great synthesis — the artist as an athlete. In him reside both athletic power and aesthetic sensibility.

``Ever since Federer beat Pete Sampras here two years ago, you knew that one day this guy would win Wimbledon,'' wrote John McEnroe in his column in The Sunday Telegraph on the morning of the final. "He reminds me of Pete. The American probably had a little more power in his serve than Federer and tended to flatten out his shots, but you can see from both Federer's general behaviour and his play on court that he idolised Pete, who is a good guy to emulate if you can."

As good as Federer is, it is one thing to emulate the great man's style and quite another to match his achievements at the end of the day. So, in terms of history, it is a long haul and Federer has a long way to go. But it was indeed wonderful to see a great talent like this 21 year old at last live up to his potential. As much as we celebrate genius and great talent in sport, it is only rarely do we see its owners delight us on the big stage.

For, it takes a certain kind of talent to manage great talent; and, on the evidence of the 117th Wimbledon championships, I would suspect that Roger Federer has it.

Venus, Serena's sister, said she decided to play the final only because she did not want to disappoint the fans. She carried an abdominal and hip strain into the match. -- Pics. PHIL COLE & ALEX LIVESEY/GETTY IMAGES-

His victim in the final, in contrast, did not have it when he was Federer's age. Philippoussis was all of 21 when he made his first Grand Slam final at the U.S. Open in 1998.

But the bronzed giant from Melbourne wanted to have the cake and eat it too, party till the birds start chirping at dawn and then go out and try and win matches. What is more, when his knees packed up and he had to go through three surgeries with his father Nick himself fighting cancer, the future looked bleak for the handsome Australian.

In the event, last fornight was something of a revelation as Philippoussis played himself back into the big league. With players like Sampras, Ivanisevic and Rafter out of the game, Philippoussis' re-emergence as a top player is certainly good news for men's tennis.

Meanwhile, Serena Williams' success in the women's championship was rather more predictable than anything else that happened over the second weekend of Wimbledon. From bookmakers to pundits as well as members of the public, everyone saw her as a clear favourite before a ball was struck in the championship.

But, given the hiccups experienced by the Williams sisters at the French Open, where Venus Williams was beaten in the fourth round and Serena went down to Justine Henin-Hardenne in dramatic circumstances in the semifinals, an all-Williams final was not as much of a sure thing.

In fact, many in the media — not to speak of the 13,810 fans on the centre court on the second Saturday — were rather disappointed that Richard Williams' two gifted daughters once again stepped in to decide a major championship between themselves — for the record, it was their sixth appearance together in a Grand Slam final.

But why? Why are so many people disappointed to see two of the best women's tennis players of the era play each other in a major final? It happened in the days of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. Why, even Martina and Steffi Graf were familiar faces on the women's final day at Wimbledon. And then came Monica Seles and her rivalry with Steffi Graf.

So what's the matter? Why is it different now? Unless one breaks a leg or someone outside the Williams family pulls off a miracle — as did Henin-Hardenne in the French Open — it is more likely than not that, should they play their best tennis, Serena and Venus will find themselves across the net from each other in the finals if one is in the opposite half of the draw from the other.

The point is, there is a lot going on here. Things are not as simple as they appear to be. There are layers and layers to be considered and discarded before you can get to the truth.

If there is a suspicion among the members of media, as well as the fans, that these two women do not give their 100 per cent on every single point when they play each other, then this may sometimes be true.

For instance, in the first set of the final, a match which Venus said she decided to play only because she did not want to disappoint the fans — she carried an abdominal and hip strain into it — it was obvious that Serena was not doing enough, to say the least.

``Serena just hit the ball straight back to Venus, which adds to the intrigue,'' said John McEnroe, commentating for BBC television.

Of course, Johnny Mac was not the only only crying foul. There were oohs and aahs in the press box and heads were being shaken to express disappointment and disapproval of the events on the court.

Then again, who can prove that Serena was not actually giving 100 per cent out there? Who can prove that sisterly love and affection was the reason why the all-conquering world No. 1 lost the first set to Venus?

What is more, it is not at all easy to compete at your best against a player who, you know, is suffering because of injuries. And when the player happens to be your elder sister, someone you have always looked up to from the time you were five or six, it is even worse.

I personally don't believe that matches between the sisters are made up at the breakfast table on the morning of the finals. If they were, there is no way Serena would have ended up winning five Grand Slam finals in a row against Venus.

On the other hand, this much is clear to me: given the conflicting emotions in play and the fact that the Williamses are a close-knit family, we are unlikely to see seat-edge thrillers too often when Serena plays Venus in a Slam final.

Of the finals I have seen between the two, the best came at the Australian Open last January. That was the closest the sisters have ever come to forgetting their blood-bonding to go at each other with everything they have.

Yet, for all this, it is impossible to eliminate the feeling that a touch of racism overhangs the great Williams debate like foul odour in a kitchen that's not been cleaned in weeks.

Would Serena and Venus receive the same treatment in the sports press and television if they were white middle class girls from Ohio or San Diego? Food for thought, really.

Now, to move on, the women's championship did throw up a few surprises, although it would be unwise to join the WTA PR team and welcome a glorious new era in women's tennis when the sport has greater strength in depth than ever before.

Yes, some of these Russians are good; not the least Maria Sharapova, the leggy 16 year old blonde who sounds more American than Russian but says her heart still belongs to the great old country.

She is a Tsarina in the making but there is many a pit to steer around — as we have found out in the case of another blonde bombshell from Moscow, one Miss Anna Kournikova — before the teenaged six-footer can get anywhere near Serena's orbit.

As for the two Belgians, Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, the former is more likely to put together any sort of serious challenge to the Williams hegemony in the majors over the long run than Clijsters who seems to lack the killer instinct.

Clijsters is a wonderfully talented young woman who is always cheerful and nice to everyone around.

Perhaps it would be good if some of her boyfriend's attitude rubbed off on her. Not the snarl, but simply the Hewitt will to win.