Right time for Swiss watch

FIRST, the good news: men's tennis is alive, and throbbing with competition. Roger Federer remains unquestionably the game's most versatile player; but the others are learning to adapt to his brand of greatness, and catching up sooner than expected.

VIJAY PARTHASARATHY

FIRST, the good news: men's tennis is alive, and throbbing with competition. Roger Federer remains unquestionably the game's most versatile player; but the others are learning to adapt to his brand of greatness, and catching up sooner than expected. Fears that we are entering an era of relentless domination have, for the moment at least, been put to rest.

Man to beat: Roger Federer has not lost a match on grass for two years.-CLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES

And now, just ahead of Wimbledon, the bad news: Federer hasn't lost a match on grass for two years. A streak that began at Halle in 2003 looks like it could stretch by another year, particularly since the lean, long-haired Federer arrives in London this summer, starved for Slams.

Federer ascended to the top of the rankings after winning in Melbourne at the start of 2004 — but as it turned out, it was merely the whiff of things to come. He ended up winning three of the four majors last year — a feat not accomplished since 1988, when Mats Wilander lost only at Wimbledon. Not even Pete Sampras in the early-to-mid-nineties, at the height of his powers, could manage to win more than two Slams in a calendar year (although he won Wimbledon and the US Open in 1993 and then followed it up with the Australian in '94). The American arguably had far more competition to contend with than Federer — that was the era of Edberg, Becker, Agassi, Courier and a host of other fabulous performers. Then again: Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick own five majors between them, and are no pushovers.

Even before he won Wimbledon for the first time in 2003, Federer had always been a prodigiously talented shot-maker; but back then his game wasn't free from bugs, his groundstrokes were erratic. Since then, something has clicked into place. His game remains the same fundamentally — he still hits deep slingshot returns, volleys impeccably, goes for the lines as audaciously as ever; only now, more often than not, he makes the winners. Federer has this peculiar gift of making the most spectacular of shots seem effortless, like he did while racing across the court to slap the ball around the net-post against Takao Suzuki at Wimbledon last year. He is devilishly quick on his feet, a fact that is partially obscured by the inherent grace in his movement. There is, as many have observed, something of the ballet in his service style, something magical in the way he conjures different serves from one toss. He possesses fantastic balance, which, besides enhancing the aesthetic quality of his game, is primarily responsible for his success on a quick surface like grass.

Challenger No. 1: Andy Roddick will desperately want to prove that he is not a one-slam wonder. The surface makes him the biggest threat to Federer.-PHIL COLE/GETTY IMAGES

Yet, somewhat bafflingly, the Swiss has been unable to replicate last year's overwhelming success at the majors. This year already he has won five tournaments before Halle (where he has won twice in a row) and only suffered three losses — but two came in the semifinals of the Australian and the French Opens. So, Federer is 0/2 in Slams so far. First, Safin, carrying his resurgence forward from late last season after winning consecutive Masters in Paris and Madrid, overcame Federer — the defending champion — in an emotionally draining rollercoaster of a five-setter. That fairytale win, sealed at midnight, just as he turned 25, set the gifted Russian up for only his second Slam, and avenged his defeat in the 2003 final. Then last fortnight, after breezing into the semifinals of the French for the first time in his career, Federer self-destructed in four sets to lose to the eventual champion, Nadal — curiously enough, this time on the day the left-hander turned 19. Uncharacteristically, the top-seed made some 60 unforced errors during the match and had to contend with a backfiring forehand for the greater part of the last set. The unforced errors can be explained easily enough — Nadal was making unbelievable retrieves, and as Federer out of desperation began to cut things finer and finer, he began to miss the lines — but still, the world number one played a poor game by his standards.

Britain backs him: The ageing, long-suffering four-time semifinalist, Tim Henman, will hope to ride the wave of local support to become the first homegrown men's champion since Fred Perry.-IAN WALTON/GETTY IMAGES

In some respects Federer's career so far bears strong resemblance to Tiger Woods's remarkable sequence of triumphs in the late 90s: the likes of Vijay Singh and Ernie Els have managed to claw their way back, however improbably; and such is the case with tennis. So, while Federer's own levels have dipped slightly, others have managed to up theirs significantly. Federer hasn't looked anywhere near invincible particularly while playing best-of-three matches this season. He nearly got into trouble on a couple of occasions against Ivan Ljubicic during the hardcourt season and subsequently lost to 18-year-old Richard Gasquet (although he did take apart the Frenchman in straight sets in Hamburg). At times, Federer has looked human this year, if not downright vulnerable.

That said, Federer looks right on course for a fifth Slam because his main challengers on grass will not be found from among this fresh, talented breed of youngsters. Take a look around. Nadal might speak optimistically of winning Wimbledon one day, but a first round defeat at Halle immediately after his triumph at Roland Garros points at glaring inadequacies — Don Quixote must first tilt at smaller windmills. 2002 champion Lleyton Hewitt is returning from an injury layoff, and that could affect his performance, while 2003 runner-up Mark Philipoussis has practically retreated into the wilderness. Safin, the great paradox of this age, has the tools to win on grass — big serve, the ability to volley — but his attitude and the motivation to win on grass are lacking somewhat. Andre Agassi meanwhile edges towards retirement, and barring a miracle, there will be no Sampras-style last hurrah for this giant.

The Dark Horse: Big-serving Mario Ancic of Croatia, last year's semifinalist and the last man to beat Federer on grass, will hope to convert his potential into deeds.-PHIL COLE/GETTY IMAGES

So we find, once again, that it is up to Andy Roddick and the ageing four-time homegrown semifinalist, Tim Henman, those long suffering honest-triers, to try and stop the Federer juggernaut. (Not a promising prospect, that, because they have long been subjugated mentally.) 21-year-old Mario Ancic — a semifinalist last year — has had impressive results since handing Federer his last defeat on grass (in the first round at Wimbledon in 2002), but is yet to fully convert his potential into deeds. Still, the big-serving Croat has an outside chance this year in a depleted field.

Ivan Lendl once derisively commented that grass was for cows; that's turned into a bit of a clich� and All-England Club trivia.

Not that Juliette, Federer's 1800 pound Bernese Oberlander bovine pet, is even mildly offended.