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What was it that caused Roger Federer to exit this year's Wimbledon in such feckless fashion?
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Master of the mind
Federer has found the perfect balance of attack and defence. Now, it's all about tempering his instinct. At a media interaction, following his Wimbledon triumph, the 30-year-old seven-time champion, smiling eyes and colour-stained countenance, was taken aback momentarily when a couple of journalists appeared to be moving in his direction. The shuffle of feet was followed by a rush in movement as they reached out to place their recorders before the world No. 1, who was about to address them. "It's OK, guys, you don't need to stand up, " he said jokingly to the handful of media men in the room. "You're supposed to say, 'You may sit down now', " the Swiss superstar was reminded. "Right, " he replied, smiling, "you may sit down now".
Nobody knows how it works at the top of the table better than Roger Federer. He needs no prompting, no reminding.
The genius artist was there, yet not there for two-and-a-half years, following his title triumph in the 2010 Australian Open. He finished 2011 without a Grand Slam title, that was a first in eight years as he had won at least one each season. He snapped Novak Djokovic's 43-match winning streak in the French Open semifinals, before falling to Rafal Nadal in the final;he then lost successive Wimbledon quarterfinals, this time to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga after winning the first two sets. At the US Open he led Djokovic by two-sets-to-love and had two match points, but failed to close out.
There were a couple of pivotal changes in Federer's life in 2009. He married long-time girlfriend Mirka in April and three months later the couple's twin daughters - Charlene Riva and Myla Rose - were born. While Federer's life continued to revolve around tennis, there were situations and experiences on the homefront where he was still finding his feet. He was also getting on in age, which cost him about half-a-step in coverage. While he gradually found his footing around his family, he wasn't where he was used to being on the professional front. Increasingly he ended up on the wrong end of a close match, in Majors and Masters events.
Unlike with Spanish rival Nadal, who was spurred to winning by the fear of losing, Federer simply loved the dance. At the start of Wimbledon, the 30-year-old enthused much like a teenager on his maiden venture on the big stage saying, "There are some great first round matches which I am very excited to watch. " When he's asked questions on the game - on upcoming players, his rivals or the Rafa-Djokovic face-off - he answers patiently and offers fair insight. He does get prickly when he finishes on the wrong end of the scoreline, but it rarely has anything to do with other players, he's mostly annoyed with the line of questioning employed by the media. On the other hand, Djokovic, after answering a couple of questions on Federer during Wimbledon, told a reporter that he liked Federer, that was why he kept questioning him on the Swiss master. The Serb said, "You ask about him all the time. " For Federer the seasoned pro, the question 'Does love mean nothing in tennis?' simply doesn't hold. Rather for him love is the beginning of all things in tennis. The world No. 1 most enjoys representing the sport and does it best when he's winning.
At the end of 2011, Federer spoke to TOICrest about taking on the doubts that tripped him on the tennis court, most notably in the matches against Djokovic and Tsonga. "Those were the bigger matches that everyone remembered, but it wasn't just those, " Federer said. When he returned to the ATP Tour after skipping the Asian leg (in autumn), it was in the pursuit of not just a more aggressive mindset, but more importantly knowing when to go for it and knowing when to hold back. In the season-ending events (indoor swing) he tested the new mindset.
Federer, who battled a volatile temper as a prodigiously gifted junior, said. "It is hard to defend on grass, but sometimes it can also be hard to set up an attack. The ball is coming at you flat, you are also playing with smaller margins. For most of the year we play with much more topspin, giving ourselves good margins over the net. Also on other surfaces we stand further behind the baseline, on grass it is worth it to be close to the lines, use a lot of down-theline shots which aren't easy to pull off on other surfaces. It's a question of confidence. For me, it is also about having played a lot of matches on grass. I think I've played over a 100 matches over the years. I know how it works. The aggressive player will be rewarded if he attacks at the right moment. "
It was those factors of attack and defence that played out so beautifully in first the semifinal against Djokovic, which the Swiss won in four sets after blasting off the blocks, then again in the final against home-hope Andy Murray, where at first many wondered if the superstar Swiss would come to the party at all. Federer dropped serve in the opening game of the match and though he broke back the Brit went on to win the set. The stylish Swiss had a heap of chances to break the Murray serve in the second set;the fourth-seed also had a look at the Federer serve. The competition appeared to be on even keel until Federer tipped the scales with two magnificent shots that literally won him the set. What appeared to be a spot of vacant matchplay, where the champion seemed to be riding a wave, was in fact the culmination of some serious reaching and stretching, where the Swiss was preparing for the kill.
Many believe that the 2012 Wimbledon final was a two-act play, one before the rain and one after the roof was drawn over. Murray said Federer was in his elements with the roof pulled over. "He hasn't lost an indoor match since 2010 so he plays well under the roof, " the Wimbledon finalist said. While it is no secret that Federer revels in fast, indoor conditions, what happened on Sunday last wasn't about rain or roof, indoor or outdoor, it wasn't about adrenalin either. It was about planning, practice and precision. It was also the triumph of belief over doubt. He was ready for the kill and he would've been up to it on ice too.
The part of Federer's greatness that has never been questioned is his undisputable genius. He is both the artist and the canvas, undiluted beauty and boldness of stroke. But push the artist into a series of repetitions and he falters. The irrepressible Spaniard Nadal was the first to drill holes in Federer's defence, mental first and then physical. Murray, who went to the final with an advantageous head-to-head record against Federer, drew from Nadal's moves.
Questions raged: What about the fight in Federer? At first, he stayed with Murray from the back of the court, wrestling with his opponent's will. In the third set, he let the forehand and serve take control. After a determined, stubborn stance in the defence position, he destroyed in attack. It was a performance that not just beat Murray and won the gentle star his 7th Wimbledon crown, 17th Grand Slam title and the World No. 1 ranking, it was a show that screamed, 'Bring on Rafa!'
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