Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Beyond the scoreboard for Federer
By Howard Bryant ESPN.com
WIMBLEDON, England -- Periodically, when he feels the need to remind people of all that he's done and all that he is, Roger Federer will talk about perspective, a virtually lost commodity in a time of superlatives and overheated analysis.
It is his way not of asking, but of reprimanding the public and the reporters who cover him not to forget to place him in proper context and not to forget he is still historically peerless. Forgetting Federer feels impossible to do -- the equivalent of watching baseball in 1932 and losing sight of Babe Ruth's résumé -- even if he has been overshadowed by Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic for most of the past two years.
Roger Federer has looked fragile, but that doesn't mean anyone can beat him.
The truth about Federer, of course, goes far beyond the instant narrative. It goes beyond the scoreboard. He is his own aesthetic, both demigod and alien to anyone who has ever tried to play the game or played it well enough to have the fortune to play against him. He is a marvel and a genius at his profession.
Andy Murray's quest no doubt is the highlight, but enjoying Federer may be the best single element of this Wimbledon. The wistful, elegiac walks off the court for Kim Clijsters, Andy Roddick and Venus Williams in defeat are accompanied by the uncertainty of their return next year. Losing opens up the humanity of an athlete. It makes them larger people as defeat has shrunken them as professionals. Where for their entire careers they elicited the rabid responses of pro or against, recognition that the warrior is at last through fighting produces, at long last, compassion and respect. It is a response that does not say pity as much as thank you.
Yet, unlike the rest, Federer is still alive in this tournament. He is beaten up. He has been beatable and yet he is still unbeaten. Federer looks more vulnerable this year than ever, yet he is exactly where he always seems to be: in the quarterfinals for a 33rd consecutive Grand Slam.
The force who served up 50 aces against Roddick in the epic final three years ago is gone. For the first time, the six-time champion looks mortal and wounded, fighting not only his opponents, but a body that has been more reliable as any the game has ever seen. Federer has never retired from a match as a professional, a remarkable achievement. Still, his goals, the No. 1 ranking and a 17th major, are all very much within sight.
Down two sets to love against Julien Benneteau, the old man with all the titles and nothing to prove stood stronger, served harder, returned and fought and held it together with steel nerves. This while Benneteau never saw a match point and was felled by his own body, limping after balls from a sore left quadriceps. Afterward, when Benneteau hobbled away from a 6-1 loss in the fifth, he pinpointed Federer's greatest asset: his will.
In the rain-marred round-of-16 match against Xavier Malisse, Federer fought a sore back, so sore that his forehand was reduced to a limp wave. He looked more like a traffic cop than the greatest player of all time. Malisse served 6-5 for the first set and still couldn't best Federer, who not only broke him, but crushed him 7-1 in the tiebreaker.
With Federer up two sets to love, his body finally began to break. During the third set, he would arch to his left to make space and distance for the forehand and rallied with Malisse, obviously laboring, obviously in pain. Malisse saw his chance and struck, taking that set. With Malisse up a break in the fourth, it appeared this was when time and fate and a million serves over a lifetime would conspire to defeat Federer -- but he won the break back and finished Malisse.
Over the past couple of years, as the muscle of Nadal and the willpower and defense of Djokovic have dominated the Grand Slam events, there is an easy tendency to overlook Federer's gifts. He is still a marvel to watch simply because of his mastery of every aspect of the sport. He has every shot for every surface in every situation. Unlike Nadal, he does not often run around his backhand. Unlike Djokovic, he did not need years to construct himself Slam capable.
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Against Benneteau, even as he was troubled by being a bit slow covering the backhand volley, Federer reminded the world once more that in a world of big-bomb servers -- John Isner, Ivo Karlovic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Milos Raonic -- he is still one of the toughest players to break. In the deuce court, Federer can serve at 115 mph and down the line at 125 with equal efficiency. In the ad court, he powers both to the forehand and backhand at top speed. As he crept back into the match, Benneteau's break chances disappeared.
When Malisse was matching him with groundstrokes, Federer switched to serve and volley, a transition he does better than any of the other top players. Nadal has an excellent volley but does not often incorporate his net play into his game, and certainly does not as effortlessly and dangerously as Federer.
It is during this Wimbledon that Federer has provided a new dimension of himself: the aging gladiator who not only will not go quietly, but who has no intention of going away at all. Should Federer win this tournament for the seventh time, it may very well be his most satisfying, for it would be the ultimate triumph of the most underrated parts of his game: his will and resourcefulness and intellect. His followers, loyal and fierce, will love him even more.