Swiss all set for Mission Sampras

Published : Jan 17, 2009 00:00 IST



As Roger Federer braces up for his 10th straight Australian Open, an event he has won thrice, the big question is will he be able to draw level with the great Pete Sampras’ record of 14 majors? By S. Ram Mahesh.

In the clarifying words of baseball savant Yogi Berra — moved to utter them after seeing first Mickey Mantle, then Roger Maris, pinstriped New York Yankees both, take a crack at Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in the late 50s and the early 60s — “it’s like déjÀ vu all over again”.

This time the words pertain to Roger Federer. When he arrived in Melbourne early last year, having recently committed to a strained mantelpiece his 12th Grand Slam trophy, the assumption was that he would at some stage during 2008 equal — and perhaps surpass — Pete Sampras’s record of 14 majors. Federer had, after all, gained 11 Slams between 2004 and 2007, thrice winning three in a year. And only two men, Rafael Nadal (every year at Roland Garros) and Marat Safin (at the 2005 Australian Open), had appeared to have his measure.

That the assumption has been dusted, sandpapered, and repackaged as Mission Sampras one full year later says several things. It evokes what is now commonly and imprecisely referred to as Federer’s annus horribilis: particularly the image of Federer in a gold-trimmed, buttoned-down, cream cardigan blinking away tears in the London gloaming as Nadal’s victorious form is sought by a million pin-pricks of silver flashlight. Equally, it evokes how Federer ended 2008, snarling, barking, willing his way to a record fifth successive US Open title — Grand Slam Number 13. (Technically he closed 2008 nursing a twinged back in a brave defeat to Andy Murray in the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup; but a little elbow room here, if you will.)

As Federer considers his 10th straight Australian Open, an event he has won thrice, he will be aware that stretched out before him is his career’s most significant period. It sounds a touch rich. How can a man already enlisted among the greatest have before him his most significant period? Federer is in it, however, to be remembered as The Greatest Of All Time, and pre-requisite demands that he first establish himself as the greatest of his times. Towards this endeavour, the 27-year-old Swiss has mastered two generations: that of his predecessors in the evening of their era, the generation including Sampras but represented best in the new millennium by Andre Agassi; that of his contemporaries growing up, consisting of Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, and Marat Safin.

But Federer is now confronted with the task of mastering another generation — the generation that matured in 2008 and contributed in part to the leanness of Federer’s year. Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have over the last year developed on so many levels that with Federer they now comprise one of the most diverse, talent-dense quartets in tennis history. They’ve also committed an act of great import: in stripping Federer of his invincibility, forcing him, as one American writer put it, to leave blood in the water so other sharks may investigate; they’ve ensured Federer will have to play out the grand narrative of the returning king. There’s a reason it’s the most uplifting story in sport. It’s the ultimate act of realisation, but — and this is crucial — it’s not always the final act. Particularly in Federer’s case, there’s every chance that the promise of an unborn future will endure despite a fulfilling closure.

So, to this year then. What can we expect? “The Australian Open 2009 takes on a major significance for me, even more so after my illness last year,” Federer said recently. “I feel much better this year. Last year, I couldn’t practise the way I wanted to because of health reasons. But this year I have trained really well and I feel very confident about myself. I have less pressure now and it is not a bad thing. I have been dominating for several years and obviously I think I can do it again.”

Ah, illness and dominance. The two themes that consumed Federer watchers last year, one influencing the other, no doubt, but to what extent? This was the principal question in the debate on the Decline — and like most of the good stuff, one that was impossible to resolve through the mind. Structure has its uses in making clear what’s already known, in ordering the known, so to speak; the mysteries of sport, however, cannot be approached through it. A part of the truth may be revealed by shining a tangential light, but the absolute is beyond conscious thought. It’s what keeps sportswriters from unemployment — the unexplainable needs explaining, and sportswriting plays the perpetual motion machine, ever seeking the truth, but never reaching it. The futility of the intellect has seldom been as profitable.

To illustrate: Tennis, in essence, is a game of dynamically manipulating court-space. Every rally is a constant quest to manage one’s space, all the time threatening the other’s, constantly recalibrating and establishing one’s striking zone while forcing the opponent outside his or hers — this moreover is done in reaction; only rarely does creation free itself from the manacles of reaction. The greatest tennis players have been the best dynamic manipulators of space. They’ve done it in different ways, but there’s hardly been a champion player who has moved poorly.

Movement is essential — not so much the scurrying (although that’s not a gift to be sniffed at), but the constant adjustments of the body so it may be best positioned to strike the ball. One of Federer’s many gifts — often the most overlooked — is the preternatural precision of his footwork, and such is the nature of tennis that fractional mis-steps throw a game spectacularly off kilter. The mind suggests that the debilitating bout of glandular fever will have affected this aspect of Federer’s game for much of the year, but structured thought can’t begin to comprehend the magnitude of the effect, particularly in relation to the improvements made by Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray on all surfaces.

Moreover the games of Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray are in flux. If TIME magazine is to be believed, Nadal and uncle Toni are working even more on shortening points so injuries like the tendonitis of the knee that troubled the number-one ranked player late last year are minimised. Incredible as it sounds, the fierce forehand was reshaped during the off-season so it takes less out of Nadal — the lassoing follow-through that, according to studies, breeds 20 per cent more revolutions per minute on the ball than any player alive wasn’t abandoned, but a less tempestuous servant was recruited (the evidence from Doha didn’t forward the case, but it’s prudent to wait in such matters).

Djokovic, who broke through with the Australian Open title in 2008, defeating Federer in the semifinals, seems to have slipped back into the role of YouTube variety act, which first made his name. Reports of partying and a fondness of golf may be little more than piffle, but he’s had troubles switching racquets from Wilson to Head. Djokovic said he wasn’t comfortable during his recent loss to 20-year-old Latvian hotshot Ernest Gulbis; while he normally relaxes the week before a Grand Slam, he has been forced to play in Sydney to log racquet time.

Murray appears to have made the most progress. He defeated both Nadal and Federer in an exhibition to kick-start 2009, and followed it by conquering Federer en route to the golden eagle in Doha. His 6ft 3in frame — thickened over winter on a diet of sushi, protein shakes, and granny’s Christmas lunch, and tautened by intense sessions of weight-training and running — looks primed to last the two weeks of a Slam. The conditioning should improve his recovery time between matches, a tender spot in the past; it has already beefed his serve, making his imaginative, deceptively soft-handed game all the more dangerous.

So it’s unclear how Federer will go in 2009. Both Nadal and Murray have made a point of diverting traffic to his backhand, and it’s surprising how an apparently transparent ploy has often worn down the gilded stroke. Another thing that’s bothered Federer is Murray’s sliding serve to the deuce court. But these are by way of technical punditry, regulated by the mind and therefore inadequate. In a broader sense, the great man will have to address his negative head-to-head records against both Nadal and Murray; they aren’t a blight on his career — to consider them so would be an insult to Nadal, who has five Slams at 22 — but they sit uncomfortably in the Federer CV.

What Federer could do with is the stiff, viscid serve — both first and second deliveries — of the man whose record he chases. Sampras’s game, underpinned on the serve and stripped of frippery, was designed for the quick, efficient kill. It was a design that aged well on fast surfaces, for it earned free points. A lot of Federer’s struggles, particularly against Nadal, have been prompted by a malfunctioning, or inadequately working, serve — even accounting for the deadening effect of clay, where they’ve met most. It was the serve, however, that bailed Federer out of trouble in the Wimbledon final against the Spaniard in 2007, laying bare its possibilities. Increasing the heft of his serve — on Melbourne’s acrylic cushion courts, which are slightly faster than the old rubber-heavy Rebound Ace — would be just the right note on which to draw level with Sampras.

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