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Double fault by man, ego
What was it that caused Roger Federer to exit this year's Wimbledon in such feckless fashion?
It was proving the dilemma of his life for the 16-year-old. An entry into the champion's dinner of Wimbledon or the opening round at the home event in Basel, for which he had been awarded a wildcard but clashed with the formal do? Roger Federer couldn't decide which way to go. "I never knew whether I would again and get a chance to attend the champion's dinner. But the Basel event was equally important for me, it was the first ATP tournament I would be playing, " the 1998 junior Wimbledon champion had said back then.
But deep down, there was belief that he would get another chance to attend the Wimbledon dinners and thus chose the Basel event. It took Federer six more years to get to that coveted occasion as the men's champion, and since then, he has owned the grass lawns of SW-19 as if it were his own backyard.
Last week, in the beautiful twilight of London, Roger Federer probably walked into sunset. The Ukranian Sergiy Stakhovsky isn't the first man to beat the maestro at Wimbledon in 13 years, but there was something about the defeat that stood out.
It wasn't because he lost in the second round or because it was coming after 36 straight quarterfinal appearances. Federer, probably, for the first time in 10 years, failed to raise his game that he had so easily done over the years.
Federer is one player who knew how to turn a match around, especially when he is playing a lesser player. He was just a few points away from defeat against Tommy Haas in the fourth round of 2009 French Open and Julien Bennetau in the third round of 2012 Wimbledon. These two matches are classic cases of the way Federer could conjure a comeback when the chips are down.
In both the cases, Rafael Nadal had lost a day earlier, and the maestro saw it as his chance. He dug deep, waited for the right ball, and just when it arrived, pounced on it. Both those wins proved stepping stones for Federer to complete two of his most famous title triumphs.
Against Stakhovsky, the stage was almost similar, the setting much too familiar and Federer was playing a perfectly decent match. If Stakhovsky was playing the old school tennis of serve and volley with a degree of precision, Federer, too, was finding the opportunities to break and get the crucial toehold.
Take the first game of the third set for example. He had two break points and in both cases, it was down to the second serve of the unseeded Ukrainian. The Federer of old would simply have pounced on one of those and he got that crucial break in the third set, just after losing a tight second set. But the forehand, the bread-and-butter of Federer for so long betrayed him on both occasions. Each time he put the ball long. The chance was gone, and Stakhovsky's serves started looking ominous yet again.
But even in the fourth, one believed that it was just a matter of that one comeback punch. The fans were playing out the Bennetau match in their minds, keeping confidence in their beloved maestro, hoping that the turnaround is just round the corner. And when he broke back, there was sense of belief that the match would be dragged to the fifth set, something Stakhovsky isn't used to playing.
At 5-6, 30-40, Stakhovsky was serving to stay in the set. It's a mediocre second serve and after a couple of exchanges Federer draws the Ukrainian to the net. He has the line in sight, but he strangely goes for the cross-court, the safer option and it's an easy put-away volley for Stakhovsky.
Now let's cast our mind back to a similar situation in the greatest tennis match of all times, the 2008 Wimbledon final. Rafael Nadal was playing at his prime, and was up 6-5 in the fourth set tie-breaker. It's the championship point and Federer is pushed to the corner, and the only shot that can save him at this situation is a back-hand down the line over the higher part of the net. In his autobiography, Nadal, recalls how with Federer pushed into that corner, he almost started visualizing his victory. But the Swiss unleashed the only shot that could be played, and the tiebreaker was back on even terms and soon, it was down to the fifth set. It's Nadal's ability to endure that won him the final, but one had to admit that Federer played his part to perfection to lend the iconic status to the match.
It has always been Federer's courage in crucial situations and his ability to play the perfect shot in big points that made him stand out. Nadal calls him "the freak of nature" and says that when he is playing at his best, "all you can do is to allow that phase of genius to pass".
On Wednesday, sitting at his Manacor residence, hurting his own wounds of a firstround defeat, Federer's greatest admirer/adversary must have felt a little surprised. "Is this the Federer I know?" If Nadal said that to himself, we won't know, but the Swiss has given him enough reasons to feel that way. Last week, the timidity and the lack of belief were completely uncharacteristic of Federer, especially in the way he played the fourth set tie-breaker. Sample: At 4-6, Federer plays a brilliant point to get it back on serve. It's hanging by the thread and one would expect the seven-time champion to play a courageous point. But what transpires is the feeble exhibition of a Centre Court first-timer, waiting for the opponent to blink. Instead, he blinks, and the match is over.
"When you're playing Federer at Wimbledon, you're playing two people - one is Federer himself and the second is his ego... When you come here, on the cover of the Wimbledon book. . . is Roger Federer. Our sport is Roger Federer, " said Stakhovsky, trying tried to put things in perspective, but somewhere, it was the champion's ego that was missing on Wednesday.
So, what exactly is a champion's ego? If we can look back a decade and half and visualize an evening in Sharjah when Sachin Tendulkar was hit on his helmet by a Henry Olonga bouncer. And what does Tendulkar do after that? He tears into the tearaway, destroys him and smashes a century that helps India win by 10 wickets
Tendulkar is no longer the same player that he was, but he can still survive playing a grinder's role in a team sport at 40. But not Federer, for whom anything but the title is a meaningless exercise. He has set ridiculous benchmarks for himself, spoiling a generation of tennis viewers with divine artistry.
Is there a way back for the master? John McEnroe and Boris Becker, during their conversation along the course of the secondround match, were talking about how Federer had left his serve-and-volley game and that has come back to hurt him. But Federer had beaten Pete Sampras in 2001 playing serve-and-volley and only re-modelled his game after losing to Mario Ancic in the first round of 2002. From being a compulsive serve-and-volleyer, he turned to an occasional serve-and-volleyer and worked on his defence that could only be matched by Nadal on clay.
"We sometimes forget that he played five French Open finals, "Becker said, in praise of Federer's defence. But that was the first decade of 2000s. Today, the likes of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are going to beat the 32-year-old every other day in that game and the Swiss master has to reinvent all over again if he has to add to his Grand Slam tally of 17.
"I still have plans to play for many more years to come. It's normal that all of a sudden losing early after being in the quarters 36 times, people feel it's different...I wish it wasn't going to end here. But I don't think that's something fans are going to mourn. It's a great number and I would reflect on the run when I'm retired -- and that's not right now. " There was something incoherent in Federer's words.
Probably in his heart, the Swiss still believes that a turnaround is possible, but the body might not obey this time. A quiet departure on one of the outside courts at Wimbledon might be a little too harsh for the maestro, but that could well be a reality in a couple of years time if Roger Federer starts defying the ultimate master - Time.
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