THE SWISS ON A ROLL, REALLY

With his fourth Wimbledon title and eighth Slam overall, Federer can now lay claim to greatness, writes VIJAY PARTHASARATHY.

Watching Roger Federer play tennis is often compared to staring at a stunning portrait or sculpture, but in fact Federer's game transcends art. As tempting as it is to draw comparisons between a forehand and a technically perfect brushstroke, let us not forget Federer is doing something that Leonardo da Vinci never had to. He practises his art, not for art's sake alone, but to compete and win. The pressure to perform week after week would bleed any artist's inspiration dry; it's what puts an entirely different spin on the exploits of men like Roger Federer.

With his fourth Wimbledon title and eighth Slam overall, Federer can now lay claim to greatness. The draw had nothing on Federer. Gasquet, Henman, Berdych, Ancic and Bjorkman were made to look ordinary. It is still unclear if he could be the greatest ever, but there is no doubt Federer is capable of anything. He could, dare I say it, win a fifth. And a sixth.

But that's looking too far ahead, perhaps. Suffice to say, this fourth Wimbledon title is obviously a significant step towards fulfilling his tremendous potential. Federer lost one set all fortnight — and that only came in the final after a tie-break; he looked invulnerable for the most part. In the coming months and years we will know if the Swiss can get anywhere near 14 Slams, but at the moment it does seem as though only one man is capable of stopping him on any surface. Rafael Nadal, erstwhile babe on grass, might have been overcome last Sunday but he was far from overwhelmed. Provided he continues this form, Nadal could in the near future emulate Borg and hold the French and Wimbledon titles simultaneously.

What's most impressive about Nadal — conqueror of Andre Agassi in the third round — is that he managed to fight despite losing the first two sets in contrasting fashion, 6-0 and 7-6. It's debatable which might have deflated his spirits more — the whipping in the first set or getting broken as he was serving for the second. Either way, the fact that he could come back to win the third set tie-break stands testament to his mental resilience.

Contrast this against Federer's ragged performance last month at Roland Garros, where he was unable to maintain his early momentum, and seemed to give up in the middle of the second set. Federer said that he believed they had both put up a similar sort of fight: "I mean, he had his chances today, I had my chances at the French, you know," Federer said. "Maybe both times you could see that maybe the other players were just a bit more confident or just got a bit of a better feeling on that surface, on his surface, let's say. I think that's what came out today, too." It is highly unlikely that Nadal shares the same opinion.

Nadal's retrieving abilities have caused Federer a lot of grief on clay. A string of wins had given the left-handed Spaniard a clear mental edge in this fledgling rivalry; but coming into Wimbledon, few gave Nadal any chance of making the second week, let alone the final.

The French Open champion had a promising run at Queen's Club, showing he could adjust quickly from clay to grass. Nevertheless the general opinion was that great movement alone wouldn't get Nadal far; that in order to mount a serious challenge on grass, he would need to develop a bigger serve and work on his volley. That point seemed to be reinforced when a little-known serve and volleyer called Robert Kendrick, an American qualifier ranked 237 in the world, took a two sets-to-love lead in their second round match.

You wish Kendrick had finished the job — not because of any bias against Nadal per se, but because styles of play on different surfaces are slowly converging and Wimbledon is on the verge of losing a significant part of its identity. Balls are getting heavier, the grass is getting slower, and as the game becomes more powerful the returns get bigger. So perhaps it's not advisable to rush to the net on second serves — one must pick one's battles judiciously — but what prevents gifted shot-makers like Marat Safin and James Blake from advancing and earning a few free points? It's all in the head. The greatest advantage of rushing the net is that you force your opponent to try and pass you — and very often the pressure will induce the error. Against the big servers, grinders are content to stand well behind the baseline and comfortably slug the ball back; which is reason enough to try something different.

In the post-Sampras era, serve and volley tennis has all but vanished on grass. There is no better evidence of this change than the 2002 Wimbledon final between two grinders, Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian. Federer seemed to restore some order the next year when he served and volleyed his way to his first Wimbledon title. But since then he has preferred to bludgeon opponents from the back of the court. It would be sacrilegious, of course, to label Federer as a grinder for he has the ability to construct points brilliantly, and hit winners from virtually any angle on court.

On the bright side, Marcos Baghdatis, another of the younger breed of stars-in-the-making, showed a willingness to advance as often as possible. He lost to Nadal in the semis, but the bulky-looking Cypriot is deceptively pacy and despite not having ever won a match on grass before this season, put in a great performance. A star for the future, no doubt.

Meanwhile, Amelie Mauresmo won her second Slam and became the first Frenchwoman in 81 years to win Wimbledon. Surely now, this choker extraordinaire, has conquered her demons forever. For long considered the best women's player never to have won a major, Mauresmo beat Henin-Hardenne at the Australian Open earlier this year after the latter retired through injury in slightly controversial circumstances. Never the best way to win a Slam, your first Slam especially; the result consequently had `farce' written all over it. On Saturday, the world number one started disastrously against the Belgian five-time Grand Slam winner, and fell a set behind in double-quick time.

The Mauresmo of old would have folded; but this was another Amelie, one searching for redemption. She shrugged off the nervousness, and then played some of the best serve and volley tennis of her career to win her first Championship.

As one might have expected, the top four seeds made the women's semifinals; at which stage, one might have considered Henin-Hardenne as the favourite. With good reason, too; for the Belgian was riding a red hot streak that had begun on clay in Paris and continued at Eastbourne. Kim Clijsters had a good tournament but as has often happened in the past, she was tactically outplayed in the semifinal by the more complete Henin-Hardenne.

The enigma of the tournament was Maria Sharapova. The young Russian began the tournament in imperious fashion, dismissing her first three opponents for the loss of just 11 games. She wobbled slightly against Flavia Pennetta, a good hardcourt player with a decent backhand, but recovered her poise and outplayed Elena Dementieva in the quarters. Since her Wimbledon triumph in 2004, Sharapova has lost her way a bit. She has regularly forced her way deep into the second week at majors, but a second appearance in a Grand Slam final has so far eluded her. Here, the story was the same: she lost a close match against Mauresmo, previously a three-time Wimbledon semifinalist.

Sharapova's problem may not be mental resilience. The 27-year-old Mauresmo made tactically superior decisions in the third set to go up 4-0. Sharapova meanwhile made several unforced errors at crucial moments. She wasn't succumbing to nerves, but her overreliance on power was exposed. Mauresmo concentrated on taking the pace off the ball and slowed the game down, forcing Sharapova forward. The Frenchwoman possesses arguably the finest backhand in the women's game (only Henin-Hardenne has a comparable one), and a couple of passes down the flanks left her opponent flailing awkwardly at the net.

Where does Sharapova go from here? Can she win another Slam? She has age on her side, obviously. Nevertheless Sharapova will need to develop a more rounded game to compete with the Mauresmos and the Henins; not to mention the next generation of players. The women's game might lack depth, but there is certainly a tremendous amount of competition at the top.

This year, the debate about equal prize money began soon after Mauresmo double-bagelled the hapless and unheralded Ivana Abramovic in their first round match. The men's singles champion makes about �30,000 more than the women's titlist — not that much of a difference when you consider both make over �600,000 — but evidently the tournament is making a brave statement.

This isn't about gender bias — it's about quality. It isn't as though women's tennis is devoid of talent, but most of that talent is concentrated within the top 20. Dangerous floaters are more of a factor in the men's game; and as far as the women's draw is concerned, the top 10 seeds usually have it easy until the third or fourth rounds. Martina Hingis's return to pro tennis is the best thing to have happened to the women's game in a long while. On the other hand, the chances of Pete Sampras making a similarly successful comeback after a four year break are non-existent. Robert Kendrick would beat him in straight sets.

Men's tennis hasn't looked this compelling in a long while. Nadal seems fully capable of enforcing a transition, and it will be fascinating to see if Federer's transcendental art can withstand the inevitable onslaughts.