Federer’s Wimbledon homecoming

The Federer of 2012 will never be the player who won three slams each in three calendar years in 2004, 2006 and 2007. He won’t be his former invincible self either. The No. 1 ranking may still change hands a couple of more times before the end of the year. But at the end of this year’s Championships, he looks to have put an end to the long drawn debate. He might after all be the greatest of them all, writes N. Sudarshan.

On the eve of the men’s singles final at this year’s Wimbledon championships, the British were hoping for a historic double. A certain Jonathan Marray was aspiring to become the first Brit to win the men’s doubles title since 1936. Yes, the same year in which Fred Perry — you know who — won the last of his and Britain’s three singles titles at Wimbledon, the burden of which Andy Murray was carrying into the men’s singles final.

Standing between Murray’s and Britain’s apparent date with destiny was 16-time Grand Slam and six-time Wimbledon champion, Roger Federer. This year’s final was more intriguing than the previous ones for the after effects the outcome would generate, than the match itself. Should Federer win, he would equal William Renshaw and Pete Sampras for the all-time record for men’s singles titles at Wimbledon. He would also tie Sampras’s record of 286 weeks at No. 1. Should Murray win, he would send the region into a sort of frenzy last witnessed after England won the 1966 football World Cup.

But alas, what could have been a double delight, turned out to be just a doubles delight. Jonny Marray won the doubles title while his more illustrious compatriot faltered. Andy Murray, who before the start of the final was thought to have found a way to land the coveted title, still seemed a work in progress at the end of it all.

Federer was coming into this tournament having not tasted success at a Grand Slam since 2010, when he beat Murray to win the Australian Open. He was written off with every single failure to win a Grand Slam though he always made it to the business end of the tournament. He was even reduced to a silent spectator to the great rivalry that was unfolding between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

But here he was, just a month short of his 31st birthday, back at the helm of world rankings, with 17 Grand Slam titles to his name and a seventh Wimbledon in his kitty.

Where will this put Federer in the pantheon of greats? Right at the top? Critics might hold his inability to beat Nadal on the red dirt at Roland Garros, even as Nadal has beaten him on his beloved grass, against him. But to win a Grand Slam at nearly 31 — the first since Arthur Ashe to win after 30 — when fitter and younger legs were testing and exploiting his endurance was no mean task.

The run-up to the tournament clearly belonged to Murray. But ultimately it was Federer who emerged on a high. Stats and trivia ranging from the absurd ‘The last Brit to win a singles title at Wimbledon was Virginia Wade in 1977, also a jubilee year and 2012 is also a jubilee year’ to a more relevant ‘Murray is only one of two active players to possess a better head to head against Federer’ were thrown in. But Murray hadn’t beaten him when it had mattered the most — finals of the 2008 U.S. Open and the 2010 Australian Open.

However, under the prevailing circumstances, it was more likely, that Murray’s start to the final would be passive. To hang in there and wait for the openings. But it was he who started on an aggressive note by breaking Federer in the very first game, displaying the same qualities that helped him work his way up through a tricky draw.

He hit hard and hit deep and hurried Federer into his shots. He forced Federer into committing way too many unforced errors and won the first set — his first success from 10 attempts at winning a set in a Grand Slam final.

However, the tide turned decisively in Federer’s favour in the latter half of the second set, when Murray missed a crucial break point. It would have given him a chance to serve for a two-set lead. In the most familiar of places, Federer would have found himself in the most unfamiliar of situations. But it was not to be. Federer held on, he broke and won the set.

Then came the rain. Ideally the delay should have helped Murray. To regroup and reassess. But once the match resumed under the roof, Federer thrived and after just the first few games, it seemed that he sensed victory.

He chipped, chopped, sliced, served and volleyed, though the last two hardly came as a combination. He went for the lines with the sort of confidence that had eluded him since the ignominy he suffered at the hands of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at last year’s Wimbledon when he lost after taking a two-set lead. The turnaround was complete and this was the Federer of old, the one that Djokovic encountered in the semifinal.

On the contrary, it wasn’t the Murray of old. Even as a belligerent Federer ran around Murray’s backhands and second serves to go on the offensive, the battered and bruised Brit clung on. He worked harder than ever and came closer than ever but still fell short, plunging the entire nation into a sea of despair.

So where does this leave Andy Murray? “I played better this time in the final and that's the main thing,” said Murray after the match. “It was my first time in a Wimbledon final, I’d never been there before. So I’m still improving, still playing better tennis, trying to improve, which is all I can do.”

Murray now has the Olympics ahead and then the U. S. Open. He would go into these knowing fully well that he is now closer to the top three than ever before. As for Federer, he will be back in Wimbledon, three weeks from now to win the elusive Olympic singles gold.

The Federer of 2012 will never be the player who won three slams each in three calendar years in 2004, 2006 and 2007. He won’t be his former invincible self either. The No. 1 ranking may still change hands a couple of more times before the end of the year. But at the end of this year’s Championships, he looks to have put an end to the long drawn debate. He might after all be the greatest of them all.