The indomitable one

Quite the most astonishing aspect of Roger Federer’s widely celebrated and ineluctable ascent of the lofty peaks of men’s tennis has to do with its serene predictability. The Swiss genius has resolutely and unerringly stuck to the popular script that foresees his awe-inspiring conquest of the game’s Everest, writes Nirmal Shekar.

Novak Djokovic, the charismatic Serb who has made a name for himself as a court jester on the international tennis circuit with his delightful impersonations of several top players, says there is only one star whose actions he cannot mimic.

“Well, the untouchable one, Roger. He is too perfect for my style. I can’t,” says the 20-year-old from Belgrade.

Untouchable? Not quite le mot juste. Try inimitable instead. And soon, perhaps, we might need to add ‘incomparable’ and every other adjective that might come in handy to reflect the ever-growing chasm between the world’s best male tennis player and his challengers.

Yet, quite the most astonishing aspect of Roger Federer’s widely celebrated and ineluctable ascent of the lofty peaks of men’s tennis has to do with its serene predictability. Like a gifted thespian acting out his role to perfection, the Swiss genius has resolutely and unerringly stuck to the popular script that foresees his awe-inspiring conquest of the game’s Everest.

The 7-6, 7-6, 6-4 victory over Djokovic in the final at Flushing Meadows on the second Sunday of September, which saw the Swiss maestro become the first man to win four successive U.S. titles since Bill Tilden in 1925, leaves Federer just two steps below the Grand Slam pinnacle, where Pete Sampras stands alone with 14 titles.

From the moment he won his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in the summer of 2003, Federer, a man who has turned archrivals into awed fans, has been tipped to leave all the legends of the game behind in the record books. Now, four years on, the man who has been the unchallenged No. 1 in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) rankings for 188 consecutive weeks, is more than three quarters of the way to the destination. Surely, in Federer’s case, sport is full of glorious certainties.

Few world champions in any individual sport have managed to dominate the opposition season after season with the Swiss master’s near-impossible blend of power and artistry. In his famous novel, Howards End, E. M. Forster wrote that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was “the most sublime noise that ever penetrated into the ear of man.” Connoisseurs of the love-all game are now unanimous in their view that Federer’s game, with all its intoxicating beauty and coruscating brilliance, is the most sublime visual spectacle tennis has ever produced.

“To play this well and lose is tough,” John McEnroe said on television after Andy Roddick, playing nearly flawlessly, still lost in straight sets to Federer in the quarterfinals. Roddick last beat Federer in August 2003 — his solitary victory over the world No. 1 in 15 meetings. And Federer’s head-to-head record is equally impressive against almost every other opponent in the top 10 barring Rafael Nadal.

“There is nowhere to go when you play Roger,” said Andre Agassi when he named the Swiss as the best player he had played against. What the American legend meant was Federer’s game has no apparent weaknesses that a clever and skillful opponent could exploit.

And when inspired rivals raise their game and fling down the gauntlet, the 26-year old Swiss with feather-light footwork soars to stratospheric levels of performance with the regal air of a Rudolph Nureyev enacting a breathtaking ballon.

But one of the least appreciated of the great champion’s gifts may well be his extraordinary ability to close out championship round matches on the big stage — the way he does it is so magnificently artful that, at a less exalted level, it might compare favourably with the recently departed Opera legend Luciano Pavarotti’s vibrant High Cs.

In the Flushing Meadows final, Federer was not quite at his magisterial best. And the reason he managed to close out the final in straight sets was because Djokovic, playing his first Grand Slam final, was felled by bouts of nerves, both in the first and second sets, squandering five set-points in the opening set and two more in the next.

Yet, it is one thing for an opponent to offer you an opening, quite another to be able to drive through that slender breach courageously and skillfully. Federer has done this time and again on the big stage.

Little wonder, then, the great man has featured in 10 straight Grand Slam finals in a span of 26 months, winning eight of them. What is more, Federer has won his 12 major titles in 50 months — that is, at a phenomenal average of almost three per year!

Now, the tallest of peaks is in his sights. “I think about it (Sampras’ record 14 titles) a lot now, honestly,” said Federer. “So to come so close already at my age is fantastic, and I really hope to break it.”

It is merely a question of when — and it might happen as early as this time next year.

In the chaotic cacophony of today’s celebrity-obsessed media world, amidst all the tripe, it is often difficult to distinguish between the transient and the timeless. This is precisely why we need to celebrate the transcendentally brilliant heroics of the sort that Federer authors whenever the opportunity presents itself — and even in a fast-evolving sport, this is not going to happen too often in the near future.

Somehow, when I watch Federer at his best, my mind always goes back to Dante’s sublime images of heaven in Paradiso (The Divine Comedy). Surely, watching Federer is the closest any of us will get to paradise on earth in a sports arena.

FEDERER'S SLAMS 2003

Wimbledon — beat Mark Philippoussis 7-6 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (3).

2004

Australian Open — beat Marat Safin 7-6 (3), 6-4, 6-2; Wimbledon — beat Andy Roddick 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (3), 6-4; U.S. Open — beat Lleyton Hewitt 6-0, 7-6 (3), 6-0.

2005

Wimbledon — beat Andy Roddick 6-2, 7-6 (2), 6-4; U.S. Open — beat Andre Agassi 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-1.

2006

Australian Open — beat Marcos Baghdatis 5-7, 7-5, 6-0, 6-2; Wimbledon — beat Rafael Nadal 6-0, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (2), 6-3; U.S. Open — beat Andy Roddick 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1.

2007

Australian Open — beat Fernando Gonzalez 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-4; Wimbledon — beat Rafael Nadal 7-6 (7), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-2; U.S. Open — beat Novak Djokovic 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2), 6-4.