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Sunday, July 8, 2012
Roger Federer's return to glory

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- Andy Murray was idling along to a routine service hold Sunday when Roger Federer suddenly, delightfully morphed into virtuoso, human-highlight mode.

The deciding game of this year's final at the All England Club -- the sixth of the third set -- required 10 deuces and ran approximately 19 minutes. Covering the court with delicate, whisper-quiet footwork, he confounded Murray with an array of lobs, powerful forehands and backhand slices -- plus a spectacular forehand half-volley from the baseline that dropped for a winner. Federer converted his sixth break point of the game with a sweet forehand winner.

In short, Federer channeled his super-cool, vintage self, circa 2005 or 2006, and pummeled Murray 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4. And when he fell to the grass on Centre Court, and the tears flooded his eyes, it was the first time in several hours that Federer seemed human.

Federer, who turns 31 in August, won his record-tying seventh Wimbledon title, joining Pete Sampras (1993-2000) and William Renshaw (1981-1989). It increased his record total to 17 major titles, and this one might wind up distancing him forever from Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

How did it feel to hold the gold trophy again?

"Feels nice," Federer said. "Like it's never left me. I've obviously gone through some struggles as well. So this one comes at the right time in my life, as any Grand Slam victory does. "It's amazing. It equals me with Pete Sampras, who's my hero. It just feels amazing."

This ends a fallow period of nine consecutive majors without a title and ends the discussion of whether or not Federer and his cranky back would ever win another Grand Slam singles championship. When the ATP World Tour rankings are updated Monday, Federer will be the No. 1-ranked player for the first time in three years.

Remarkably, he is the oldest man to win a Grand Slam title since Andre Agassi won the 2003 Australian Open. Federer referenced his two near-misses last year, up two sets on both Jo-Wilfried Tsonga here and Djokovic at the U.S. Open.

"I never stopped playing," Federer said. "It all came together. It's a magical moment for me."

And so Murray, the 25-year-old from Dunblane, Scotland, who had never won a set in three previous major finals, will not be the first male British champion here since Fred Perry in 1936. The buzz Murray generated over here the past two days is difficult to overstate. Omens, described by an overheated British media, were everywhere.

"I didn't read the papers to be quite honest," Federer said. "He's done well over the years. He'll win at least one Grand Slam. This is what I hope for Andy."

On Saturday night, Jonathan Marray, a journeyman from Sheffield, partnered with Frederik Nielsen in doubles to become the first British man since 1936 to win an All England title. Also Saturday, on the seventh stage of the Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins became only the fifth British man to wear the yellow jersey. No wonder Centre Court tickets were going in excess of 25,000 pounds and the BBC was predicting a national audience of 20 million. More impressive, Kate and Pippa Middleton were in attendance.

In recent years, Murray has been recognized as a technically superb player, but he's also a bit of a perfectionist. He hates to hit shots that miss, and as a result, he has the maddening habit of putting the ball in the center of the court -- even when an opening presents itself. Ivan Lendl has spent a great deal of time trying to get Murray to go for his shots, particularly his forehand. Lendl's $500,000 job, essentially, is to put some mean in Murray.

With Federer serving at 4-all in the first set, Murray finally ripped one. He had struggled to hold his previous serve, saving two break points in a four-deuce game, and now both players were advancing toward net. Murray sent a forehand right at Federer's head and the Swiss champion, wide-eyed, barely yanked himself out of the way. The ball appeared to graze his shoulder, and in Murray's box Lendl had to be happy, for he was (in)famous for hitting opponents.

When Federer sent another unforced forehand into the net, Murray had broken him for the second time in the set. He confidently served it out and the Centre Crowd jumped to its feet. Murray had won his first set ever in a major final.

There were chances in the second set, but Murray did not take them. Just when it looked like they were headed into a tiebreaker, Federer struck swiftly, almost quietly. Playing two of the best points of the match, Federer outmaneuvered Murray with some crazy stuff -- the last stroke an exquisite backhand drop volley that leveled the match.

The only thing that could add to the drama? The inevitable rain delay, which came with Federer serving at 1-all. Since the roof over Centre Court was open, it took about 40 minutes before the players came back to complete the first Wimbledon final ever played inside.

That was when Federer returned to his everlasting glory. Murray played the right way, took his chances -- and still couldn't beat him.

When Murray, emotionally overcome, took the on-court microphone, he made several false starts before he quipped, "Getting closer." Later he added, "Roger's 30 now, and he's not bad for a 30-year-old. He played a great tournament and showed what fight he has left in him. Congratulations, you deserve it."

A decade ago, Paul Annacone helped guide Pete Sampras to his 14th and final Grand Slam singles title at the 2002 U.S. Open. Sampras, who had just turned 31, beat Andre Agassi in the final and never played another competitive match. For nearly two years now, Annacone has been coaching Federer; until Sunday they had yet to win a major together.

Federer, who turns 31 in August, has already passed Sampras -- he now has a record 17 major titles -- but he has been aching to put it out of reach. This tournament, considering his age and his affinity for grass, looked like his best chance.

"That's what a lot of people are thinking," Annacone reflected Thursday, before Federer beat Djokovic to reach the final. "But he never talks about it. He's a lot like Pete. I've never seen him hit the panic button.

"He loves the atmosphere here. His record is superlative. He feels like there's an opportunity at every Slam. He's making lots of semis -- it's not like he's crashing out in the first round. If he's not in the final, people project all kinds of calamitous pontifications."

Although Sampras was weary of the day-to-day grind at the end, Federer seems to revel in it.

"He really enjoys competing," Annacone said. "It's hard for people to understand that he loves the life he's living. When you're happy and healthy and that good at what you do, you can still achieve monumental stuff. And it all still feels very normal.

"Whether he wins here or at the Olympics or at the U.S. Open, he's just not going to say, 'That's it. I'm done.'"

Federer, when asked if he was a better player today than five years ago, concurred.

"I hope so," he said. "God, I've practiced so much that I -- you don't want to be worse five years later. I feel I have a great game today. I know how hard it is to pull off those great shots, and I know how easy it is to miss, so I'm more aware of these things.

"But I'm so happy I'm at the age I am right now because I had such a great run and I know there's still more possible. I'm at a much more stable place in my life. Yeah, I wouldn't want anything to change."