On Matters That Matter

The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones

Federer and Roddick battle for history

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I’ll go back in history to paint a background that puts today’s Wimbledon final in perspective. I could pick any point and there are 14 of them or I could pick the one that’s determined to add another one. The problem is that in the context of this match neither of those points are the most significant.

A significant point in a tennis match is a break point. And a significant one in a player’s journey is also a point when he is broken, pulverised to dust, robbed of dignity and left with the challenge of picking the pieces in order to become whole again.

On June 8, 2008, Rafael Nadal thrashed Roger Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 to win his fourth successive French Open title. Federer had 12 Grand Slam singles titles before that day, and in the next four Grand Slams he’s added two more to the tally but the two that got away have their own meaning.

On July 4, 2008 when Federer and Nadal met next after Roland Garros, in last year’s Wimbledon final, Andy Roddick had just landed in Texas with wife Brooklyn and the television in the airport lounge caught his eye.

The epic struggle in which Federer made a stirring riposte after being two sets down was somehow breaking Roddick. He could not watch. He was quoted as saying he didn’t want to watch. He could not take his eyes away from the match either. He didn’t leave the airport till the match got finished and Nadal prevailed in the titanic struggle. Roddick felt he was in an abyss. He missed being there.

Just eight days earlier he was in Centre Court as the number 6 seed and had been sent packing in the second round by unseeded Serbian Janko Tipsarevic. Watching the match at the airport was a moment of truth for Roddick, and it led to his questioning his game and laying bare his doubts with Brooklyn. In came coach Larry Stefanki and Roddick went back to the drawing board. Stefanki has the reputation of ruling with an iron rod and the result is a lean, fast and positive Roddick.

On the other side Federer ended the season lifting the US Open, beating Andy Murray who had dismissed his nemesis Nadal on way to the finals. It was a season that would have made any player proud, but Federer is not any player and for him the season would have hurt like hell.

This year Federer came out to Melbourne in great form, making light of the challenge of Roddick and Del Petro on his way to the final. Nadal reached the final a spent man, having survived the match of the tournament with fellow countryman Verdasco.

It was a tight match till four sets, Nadal was tired yet fired up while Federer was good but not the man who at his best combines beauty with disdain. Everything deserted Federer in the final set; his first serve, his accuracy in hitting the lines, and most of all his belief. It was a match he said he could have or should have won.

This was the second time he was beaten by Nadal on a surface that suits him more after the annihilation in Paris. In one year the king of clay had snatched the overall Number 1 crown, conquered grass and the Australian hardcourt and had an Olympic gold as crowning glory.

Federer broke down to uncontrollable tears in Melbourne, his long-time girlfriend and now wife Mirka Vavrinec looking shocked in the audience. He had somehow managed to say a few words at Wimbledon, ‘the worst opponent but on the best court’ and had also maintained his poise.

In Melbourne he could not do either, when the crowd shouted, ‘We love you, Roger’, Federer was completely lost. Nadal didn’t know what to do, his moment of glory drowning in a sea of tears. Nadal took his trophy and came and put his arm around Federer to empathise, and both of them smiled for a while.

That’s when Federer intervened and did what summed up his character more than the whole of last year had. That’s when he became whole again. Let me try once more he said, I don’t want to have the last word. That man deserves it. Congratulations Rafa, you are the deserving champion. That moment of giving credit to the victor lifted the burden from the vanquished.

Roger Federer has buried the past and lifted the French Open this year. Andy Roddick has turned the clock back; when Stefanki told him he needs to lose 5 kgs, Andy responded by saying that he hasn’t been that slim since he was 21. To which his coach said: But what happened at 21, you won a major.

The stage is set for the defining moment and one way or the other history would be made today. The two men in the Centre Court know that history would be made only if they forget history. It would be sad if Roddick plays with the burden of history tied around his neck and it would be dangerous if Federer plays with the comfort of history in his mind.

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Written by Deepan Joshi

July 5, 2009 at 3:58 pm

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