Hot wheels

Surviving the first week on grass is always slightly tricky, even for the greatest of players. If he manages that with zero match practice going into Wimbledon, Roger Federer should prove as invincible as ever, writes Vijay Parthasarathy.

When Roger Federer stepped out on Centre Court clad in an immodest (if chic) custom-made blazer ahead of his first round match against Richard Gasquet at Wimbledon last year, the first thought that struck many of us was: and what if he lost? The Frenchman, whose game bears shades of Federer's own, was a dangerous opponent on grass; he had, in the past, caused some problems for the World Number One; he might have inflicted a major embarrassment on Federer and Nike.

Of course, as it turned out, he couldn't. Federer hopped and skipped through a minefield that fortnight. One dangerous opponent after another was dealt with swiftly, deftly. Mario Ancic, that fine serve-and-volleyer, and the last man to defeat Federer on grass back in 2002, could manage no more than a few games in their quarterfinal match — something that points at the condition of the modern grasscourt game, which Federer, through his all-court prowess, has influenced tremendously. The only one to take a set off the world number one was his surprise opponent in the final and arch-nemesis on clay, Rafael Nadal.

Four quarks, then, for Master Federer, emulating Pete Sampras's best run; and now, he is on the verge of equalling Borg's Open era record of five straight.

And who is to stop him? Andy Roddick, the second-most successful player of his generation on grass but whose serve Federer picks with minimum fuss? Nadal, with his improved yet limited skills on this quickest of surfaces; and whose sheer bloody mindedness almost (but only almost) compensates for his weaknesses? Novak Djokovic, whose bullish form and pronouncedly physical all-court game could see him improve upon last year's fourth round appearance?

None of those, however, seems equipped to take Federer out on grass, particularly during the latter half of the tournament when they potentially meet. Although, of late, Nadal's aggression levels have spiked on both hardcourts and clay, and he would have worked on his tactics for grass; Federer must watch for that. On the other hand, few have the ability to trouble Federer on grass, whereas Nadal struggles against anyone willing to serve and volley — which is what Robert Kendrick demonstrated so effectively.

In 1996, Richard Krajicek served impressively to overcome three-time defending champion Sampras in straight sets; it's difficult to see something like that happen to the Swiss. Federer might not have the biggest serve (that award goes to Roddick), the biggest forehand (Roddick again) or the best backhand (Gasquet anyone?), but he moves better than anyone and puts together the best package. His is an ambitious game, a study in composed aggression.

As Roddick once said, throw the kitchen sink at Federer and he comes at you with the bathtub. Federer is the sort of player who builds momentum through the course of a tournament and with each match, it gets increasingly harder to evict him off his turf — for that reason, almost every top-10 player, other than Nadal, has found it difficult to consistently ruffle him.

Much depends on the draw. The year after his supposed coming-of-age win over Sampras, Federer was knocked out by Ancic in the first round. A so-called dangerous floater could pose questions early on, and it is one of those competent low profile players on their way up who would have the best chance of causing arguably the biggest upset in the history of grass court tennis.

Last week, Federer pulled out of Halle, where he was the four-time defending champion. It was reported he was suffering from fatigue. Federer will have also used the time-out to lick wounds sustained during the French Open final defeat; this loss has probably affected him more than the one he sustained last May. With each year slipping by, it seems fated that Federer will join Sampras, McEnroe, Becker and Edberg as the best players never to have won at Roland Garros. Will he, won't he?

Not that he will let such thoughts affect him for too long: if anything can yank him out of his misery it is probably the smell of grass. Still, surviving the first week on grass is always slightly tricky, even for the greatest of players. If he manages that with zero match practice going into Wimbledon, Federer should prove as invincible as ever. In all likelihood, Federer will win a fifth Wimbledon — if only because, in the past, his opponents have not shown themselves to be worthy enough on that day.

Staggeringly, he is still a month short of his 26th birthday. It's easy to forget his age, not merely because he possesses the mature looks and self-assuredness of a 35-year-old, but also because celebrities seem to age on a different scale. At that point, most of us are still finding our way in the world.

It used to take the span of a career for a great tennis player to accumulate 10 Slams; Federer has compressed that, and managed 10 in five years of high productivity. (Fred Perry comes close, having won all his eight Grand Slam titles in four.) There is no saying how many Federer will finish with. After Nadal managed to deny him the French yet another time, doubts regarding Federer's place in the hierarchy of all-time greats will linger for at least another season. It's clear though, Pete Sampras's record of 14 is already under threat.

Two tasks remain for Federer to prove beyond dispute that he is indeed the greatest player to have ever stepped on a tennis court across surfaces: 1) to overhaul Sampras's tally and, 2) win the French. And if he completed the Grand Slam, on all four different surfaces, well, that's just the sort of thing that forces sceptics to hide their faces in embarrassment.

But for now, Federer must remain satisfied with four racquets sewn on to the crest of his jacket. He must put his head down and attend to some regular business.