We all know that the best sportsmen engage their opponents beyond the realm of physical skill. The best of the best, however, know how to prolong that engagement.
At the end of an absorbing two weeks of spectacular tennis at Melbourne Park, one man reaffirmed his status as the game’s greatest. Roger Federer’s victory, his 16th career Grand Slam title, took us, as it always has, through a kaleidoscope of emotions. Yet, more importantly, in the midst of augmenting his legend and delighting his fans, the Swiss ace handed out a vital tutorial to the brat pack waiting in the wings.
The win in itself is not unexpected. He was the top seed at the tournament and was looking to start the year after a fairly successful 2009. He had won the elusive French Open, overtaken Pete Sampras as the leading Grand Slam winner of all time and on these two counts at least, history had been unequivocally made. Additionally, Rafael Nadal, Federer’s only real adversary in the last five years, was struggling to maintain peak fitness, an essential pre-condition in his better head-to-head record against the Swiss. Against this backdrop, it would have taken someone with the mind of a lunatic and the extravagance of a millionaire to have placed his money against Federer at the inaugural Grand Slam event of the upcoming decade.
Yet the naysayers were predicting doom for the world No. 1. The draw was the first of the reasons. There were a host of big guns waiting to waylay Federer, names that included players like Lleyton Hewitt, Nikolay Davydenko, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Novak Djokovic. The Russian Davydenko, in particular, was riding on some red hot form, having won both the ATP World Tour Finals in London in late 2009 and the Qatar Open in early 2010. In both tournaments, Davydenko had beaten Federer and Nadal en-route to the title, a feat so difficult, that it is easier to imagine lowly Burnley getting ahead of Chelsea and Manchester United in the race to win the English Premier League.
Federer is also not exactly the young gun on the circuit anymore. In professional tennis, a 28 year old man playing opponents who are often six or seven years younger is considered a battle between generations. The likes of Andy Murray, Marin Cilic and Juan Martín del Potro, all represent this younger generation who aren’t overwhelmed by the odds or afraid of reputations. With del Potro having become the first person with a surname other than Nadal to beat Federer at a Grand Slam final as recently as the 2009 US Open, this was clearly the most open Men’s Grand Slam competition in a long, long time.
With the stage set for the unexpected, Federer got into the act. In the fourth round against Hewitt, the Australian No.1, he did enough to ensure that he was always ahead of his adversary, so that even while he was not at the top of his game, the crowd did not get an opportunity to support the local favourite. Against Davydenko in the quarter final, Federer, at the receiving end of some outstanding tennis for the first forty-five minutes, slowed down the pace of the game, taking a strategic toilet break in between. In doing so, he robbed the Russian of his momentum and managed a Houdini of sorts.
Tsonga, a player seeded tenth in the competition, was unlucky in that he caught Federer at the semi-final, on a day when the Swiss was in a mood to murder. Tsonga’s annihilation, in less than 90 minutes, was so complete that it begged the question whether the Frenchman actually played the same sport as Federer. And finally there was Murray, a supposedly better and more mature player now than in his 2008 US Open final showing against Federer where he had lost in straight sets. Yet, with his legacy firmly cemented, Federer used the occasion and the crowd, to his advantage and raced to a 2-0 lead. By the time Murray overcame his nerves, Federer was collecting the Australian Open Men’s Singles trophy at the podium.
In those crucial matches, particularly against Davydenko and Murray, Federer didn’t rely on his game alone to win. His performance there revalidated that the best sportsmen take their game beyond the realm of pure physical skill. They engage their opponents in areas unfamiliar to them. While the adversary is expecting a face off only in the physical arena, champions take the fight into the mental dimension.
At 0-30 in the third game of the second set in the final, Murray approached the net aggressively after a weak Federer return of serve. The World No. 1 was on the defensive and the likelihood of him winning the point was next to impossible. Yet, in a transforming moment, Federer went beyond the realm of the plausible to conjure a shot that passed Murray at 155 kmph and left him sick in the gut. That sequence summarized Federer’s journey at this year’s Australian Open. He overcame the odds, to emerge a winner. This is how Mohammed Ali defeated George Foreman in 1974 and Michael Jordan led his Chicago Bulls past the Utah Jazz repeatedly in 1997 and in 1998. Federer’s win, in that sense, felt like yesterday once more.
(The writer is a Mumbai-based freelancer)