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His shots can make you fall off the sofa
How does the timelessness of Federer's craft fit into today's world of tennis? The answer lies in the man's own supreme fitness.
I played my tennis at a time when the game was not so physical. Yes, the cut-throat competition was there. But even then a player beyond the age of 30 striving to break new ground was a rare commodity. Roger Federer, for me, has redefined the game.
When I look at him on court these days, sometimes I feel, did we play at all? This man has all the artistic ingredients, but it's backed up by sheer physicality.
Surprised? Don't be. . .
Federer is an ultimate physical player. If he is playing those shots that mesmerise you and make you fall off the sofa, it's because he is extremely fit. Those down the lines and the flick of wrists and the gorgeous drop shots that are so inch-perfect wouldn't have happened if he was not there behind the ball all the time.
I have never seen a player with better footwork than Roger Federer. And it hasn't happened out of thin air. He takes extreme care of his body, and I am sure he has done that from a very early age. In this era of the Nadals and Novaks, if he had to survive with his brand of artistry, he had to have the perfect body - one that would stretch itself to the limit when the chips are down.
In my days, the dynamics of the game was completely different. The game was all about serve and volley and the better serve and volleyer would win. The Australian player Rod Laver was a perfect exponent of that art and that's why he got the success that he did.
Federer, on the other hand, has this strange mix. When he started off, he beat Pete Sampras at Centre Court in 2001 essentially with serve and volley (something that hadn't happened since 1993). But with time, the grass was made slower, the balls became heavier, and Federer understood that he wouldn't survive if he was only playing the serve-and-volley game.
It's just the necessity of times that made him a baseliner, but that serve never deserted him. He knew that if he charged to the net at every occasion, he would be passed time and again. So he started to stay back at the baseline and kept the serve and volley as a surprise option, something that's completely different from our times. People keep asking me whether Federer would have been as successful if he was playing with a wooden racquet. The simple answer to that is the effectiveness of the shots would have come down by 30 per cent, but that is true for every player. So, there's no point saying that he would have been less successful, because nobody could have taken away his artistry or his fitness. I, for one, would have hated to play Federer, because it would have been virtually impossible to beat him.
I sometimes try to visualise a situation where Laver is playing Federer, but I find it difficult to come to a conclusion as to who would win. The game has changed so much over the last 50 years that it's very difficult to pit the two against each other. Rod would have liked to serve and volley and Roger, staying back, would have tried to pass him. But what racquets would they be using, which surface would they be playing on? It's difficult, you see. . . Laver lost out the six best years of his tennis life due to pro-amateur controversy. He would probably have won as many Wimbledon titles as Roger has if he didn't miss those years, but still I can't say for certain that the Aussie was a better player than the Swiss.
To Rod's credit, he had won all four Slams in a calendar year twice, something that Roger hasn't been able to do. But let's not forget that the Swiss, playing in an era when four Slams are played on four different surfaces, has won three in a calendar year thrice. Had it not been for Nadal, he would have won all four more than once and that proves Roger is an epitome of consistency. Losing to the Spaniard on the French clay doesn't make him a lesser player, it only shows how good a player Rafa is on that particular surface. In our day, the players used to play Davis Cup and it's often said that Roger hasn't won that title for his country. What people forget is that one player cannot win a Davis Cup on his own. He needs a good back-up player and it's only now that the master has somebody in Stanislas Wawrinka. They won the doubles gold in the last Olympics, and I believe that Federer, who is good enough to play for at least five more years, will win the Davis Cup one day. Even if he doesn't, who cares? Roger Federer, chasing the ball down with the footwork of a ballet artist on the green lawns of Wimbledon is a sight that's as eternal as the Grecian urn itself. . .
(Ramanathan Krishnan, India's best-ever singles tennis player reached successive Wimbledon semifinals in 1960 and '61. He spoke to Dwaipayan Datta)
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