Friday, July 13, 2007

Federer shows he has grit


Roger Federer looked flustered, out of it, in a rut, inferior.

Yes, as hard as that is to believe, during the fourth set of his Wimbledon final against Rafael Nadal Sunday morning, the man who has now won five consecutive titles on London's preened grass courts didn't look his part.

The usual calm champion even lost his cool for a fleeting moment. Trailing 2-0 in the fourth set, Nadal successfully challenged an out call, changing the score on Federer's serve from 40-30 to 30-40. Federer, obviously peeved by the replay's result, accosted the chair umpire to discuss the ruling.

Nadal went on to break Federer for the second consecutive time, and he cruised to a 6-2 win of the set, sending the match to the ultimate fifth set, in which Federer proved to be his old self — breaking Nadal twice and finishing him 6-2.

But Federer gave himself the needed shot of momentum in the otherwise droll fourth set. Leading 4-1, Nadal — visibly limping — had to take time out to get the back of his right leg taped up. Perhaps Federer regained his composure and killer instinct during that reprieve, because he didn't play poorly after it. After Nadal closed out on serve to grab a commanding 5-1 advantage, Federer easily claimed his service game and then took Nadal to 40-30 — hitting one of his unreturnable forehands — before succumbing in the set's final game.

On paper Nadal had the momentum, but Federer had his touch back, and his mind was back on task.

Nadal’s resolve
Entering the fifth and deciding set, the advantage clearly went to Nadal. Federer hadn't played a five-set match in over a year and was a very mediocre — especially for him — 9-10 in five-setters for his career. Nadal, on the other hand, needed two hard-fought five-set matches to set up the final with Federer, and he brought a lifetime 9-2 mark in five-setters.

Additionally, Nadal was on an emotional high following the fourth set. The average viewer had to think after Federer dominated the third-set tiebreak (7-3) that Federer was on his way to Wimbledon title No. 5. That the match would be similar to last year's final, when Federer treated the fourth set like a do-or-die set, finishing off Nadal before he could build any suspense.

But the fearless 21-year-old Nadal didn't flinch one bit despite losing his second tiebreaker of the day in the third set (he went down 9-7 in the first-set tiebreaker). Instead, he came out the aggressor in the fourth set. His determined countenance belied his age and the number of good years he has in front of him. In that fourth set, he played like an aging veteran desperate to win that elusive Wimbledon title.

Nadal, who isn't known for his net play, did it all in his best set of the match. He moved Federer to all parts of the court with his ground strokes — his winning strategy at the French Open — and he charged the net when the opportunity presented itself, taking balls off his shoe tops and dropping them right over the net.

And as Federer began his string of uncanny play, committing careless mishits and not displaying an ounce of the killer instinct one would expect from him in the situation, Nadal didn't let up. He could sense the championship was there for the taking.

Federer's resolve
Here's the thing about Roger Federer. We've known for a few years now how good he is. OK... how DOMINANT he is. We've called him arguably the greatest player ever to play the game. We've compared him to Tiger Woods.

But we haven't really seen how he fares when adversity is staring him straight beneath his white headband. Before Sunday he hadn't played in a five-set Wimbledon match in six years, which was when at the ripe age of 19 he defeated Pete Sampras in the fourth round at the All-England club to prevent the all-time leader in Grand Slams (with 14) from winning his fifth consecutive Wimbledon (how ironic).

Before Sunday, Federer had never needed five sets to win any of his 10 Grand Slams finales. He'd rolled over opponents, toying with them, really, throwing them a few games here, maybe a set there. But two sets? No such luck. To use a Tiger analogy, Federer had never faced a twisting 10-footer for par that he absolutely needed to drop.

Until Sunday. So who knew how Federer — Mr. smooth, Mr. Easy Wins — would respond after being clearly outplayed in the fourth set Sunday? Nobody, really, except Federer.

Well, the verdict is in, and Roger Federer deals with pressure about as well as that golfer aforementioned. As the Aussies would say, "No worries."

Nadal was good in the final set (except that he couldn't hit a first serve in). Federer was very good. Nadal threatened Federer twice during the set, earning two break points on two occasions (with the score 1-1 and 2-2). Both times, however, Federer used his big serve (combined with a few unforced errors by Nadal) to hold serve. He didn't panic. He didn't complain to any judges. He simply dug deep, playing his best when he absolutely had to.

And then when the vital break opportunity presented itself, Federer — obviously having learned from his lack-of-focus in the previous set — jumped on it. Leading 3-2, Federer painted a beautiful backhand up the line to break Nadal and basically wrap up the match.

Another game on serve and break later, Federer was lying on the grass in exultation, having tied Bjorn Borg for the most consecutive Wimbledon titles.

And no one can say he didn't earn this one. No one was begging for his sweat-soaked headband following this 3-hour, 45-minute marathon of a match.

Yes, Roger Federer appeared vulnerable on Sunday despite playing on his favorite surface. He looked ready to sit back and let another man enjoy the glory of winning Wimbledon.

But none of that is being written about right now. People from Switzerland to here are singing his praises for showing that fortitude, for standing up to the pressure of a do-or-die fifth set.

And he deserves all the lauding. He clearly remains the world's best. For now at least — watch out, Nadal's coming! — Federer felicitously can sip Champaign from his perch atop the world of men's tennis.

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