Sunday, July 5, 2009

Federer, as clutch as ever, proves he's the best


Andy Roddick played the match of his life Sunday. Time after time, he answered Roger Federer's serve by unloading another perfect 140-mph missile and holding his serve.

He refused to be broken. Ten times during the fifth set, he faced a do-or-die service game. There were minor chinks in his armor — points when one slip-up could have given Federer the edge the great champion needed to finish off the huge underdog.

But Roddick stayed strong and composed, somehow, and gave Federer an incredible battle that had me wondering if the greatest of all time would face a repeat of a year ago when he came so close to winning his sixth Wimbledon title only to fall just short.

Federer, however, proved once again why, yes, he should be considered the greatest player of all time. He never let the pressure of the occasion get to him. Sure, there were a few poor shots and he faced a couple break points in the historic fifth set.

But he never flinched.

And when he finally got his first championship point of the 4-hour, 17-minute match, he jumped on it. A couple of strong forehands followed by a botched Roddick forehand later, Federer was jumping in the air celebrating No. 15.

He's unbelievable.

Afterward, NBC commentator John McEnroe gathered the legends Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras together for a group interview. McEnroe then put Sampras on the spot, asking the 14-time major winner if it's fair to call Federer the greatest of all time.

Sampras had the appropriate response, saying he didn't want to make such a statement "with Rod sitting here." But it was apparent to me that if out of the public eye, Sampras would say what McEnroe was looking for.

McEnroe then asked Laver, the great champion who won two grand slams, what he thought about Federer's resume. Laver's response was also a good one — he said we should wait until Federer's career is over to determine his place in tennis history.

I, for one, never saw Laver play. I'm certainly aware that had he played all his matches during the Open era — which began in 1968, allowing pros to once again play grand slams after six years of not being allowed to — he could have many more than the 11 grand slams he finished his career with.

Laver undoubtedly is an amazing champion.

But when I examine the numbers, Federer is now the greatest of all time. Don't just consider his 15 grand slams. How about the record 20 grand-slam finals he's reached? Or the 21 consecutive grand-slam semifinals (and counting)?

Greatness is defined by consistency, and no one has been as dominant, consistently, as Federer. He's won at least a major in seven consecutive years and two or more in five of those years.

And he's not done. At 27, Federer has said he wants to play in the 2012 London Olympics, which would mean, I surmise, that he'll play in grand slams, if healthy, the next three and a half years.

I'd be shocked if he doesn't add at least another major to his resume.

Even if Federer retired this evening, I'd still call him the greatest. He, like Michael Jordan in his later years with the Bulls, demonstrated what makes the world's best athletes so incredible.

He clearly isn't as athletic as he was five years ago. He wasn't moving any better than Roddick, and if they had identical faces, it would have been extremely difficult to differentiate between the two players.

But Federer, like Jordan, has nerves of steel and is, along with Rafael Nadal, the most clutch player in the game today (although Roddick, if he can consistently play like he did Sunday, could join the conversation).

He is mentally as strong as ever. When the points count the most, when he needs a big serve or a backhand up the line, he rarely fails to deliver.

That's exactly what happened during a second set tiebreaker that was almost forgotten by the conclusion of the marathon fifth set. Roddick, already up a set, led 6-2 and was on the verge of taking a commanding 2-0 lead in sets. But that's when Federer delivered a smooth backhand, then two huge serves to close to 6-5.

After Roddick made his one big error of the match, failing to put away an overhand backhand volley, the tiebreak was even. Federer proceeded to seize the opportunity, quickly collecting the next two points to tie the match at a set apiece.

The finale should be remembered as much for that string of points as for the remarkable fifth set.

And, hopefully, it's remembered as much, also, for Roddick's resilient play as it's remembered because it marked Federer's record-braking grand slam win. As Laver said, "Andy Roddick was unbelievable how he played. His serving and the backhand down the line were incredible."

Which only makes Federer's accomplishment that much more impressive. Several of his 15 majors have come against worthy opponents who up their level of play against the world's now No. 1 player once again.

He beat Nadal in two Wimbledon finals before succumbing to the Spaniard a year ago. And he'd probably have more than one French Open title if not for Nadal, who beat him four consecutive times in Paris, including three straight times in the final.

On Sunday, Federer won yet another memorable final that shouldn't be forgotten for a variety of reasons.

And only cemented the greatest of all time's legacy.

As if it needed much cementing.

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