Roddick will give Federer the best challenge

WIMBLEDON, England -- Here is why it is so fitting for Roger Federer to be called, in Wimbledon's quaintly anachronistic argot, "the gentlemen's singles champion."

It was during a tense and gripping semifinal match between Andy Roddick and Thomas Johansson that had been suspended overnight from Friday to Saturday that a rested, relaxed Federer was invited into the interview room. He was asked if he was happy to see his would-be opponents in Sunday's championship match running and gunning each other all over the Centre Court.

"No, not really," said the two-time defending champ, who reached the final by dismantling Lleyton Hewitt in straight sets Friday, before rain interrupted the second semi with Johansson about to serve at 5-6 in the first set. "I would be happy if they were over and done with, too, so they could also have their fair share of rest."

Super player, great sport -- respected in the locker room as well as on court. So clearly the No. 1 player in the world that he seems more than one notch above the rest, Federer doesn't want any unearned advantages. He certainly doesn't need any. He has won his last four matches against No. 2 Roddick (who knocked out Johansson in a gritty, four-set slugfest to set up a rematch of last year's final) and his last eight against No. 3 Hewitt.

Roddick knows the records and the head-to-heads. "Was it impressive?" he asked rhetorically of Federer's 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (4) rout of Hewitt. "Yes, very impressive. Was I surprised or shocked by it? Not really."

That may give you a clue as to why Federer is considered an almost prohibitive favorite to hoist the gentlemen's singles trophy for a third successive year.

Federer, winner of 35 straight matches on grass courts, is already being compared to Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras, who hold the longest Wimbledon winning streaks of the modern era. Federer acknowledged there was another reason he would just as soon have had the other semifinal finish on Friday -- so he could "prepare mentally" with one man in mind. When you are so far above the field, you are concerned less with an opponent's particular weapons than you are with your own state of mind.

This is not hubris, just the mentality of a champion. When Federer was asked whom he would prefer to see across the net on Sunday, he invoked not the famous neutrality of his native Switzerland but the instincts of a true champion.

"Maybe I would like to play Johansson just because he's got less experience," Federer said, his lips revealing a slight, wise smile before he went on: "But I think Roddick will be the classic matchup, something that I would be looking forward to even more than playing Johansson."

That is the right attitude for a Wimbledon legend in the making. Bring on the best opponent available.

Roddick it is. It took him a minute under three hours over two days to finally subdue Johansson, the 2002 Australian Open champion, 6-7 (6), 6-2, 7-6 (10), 7-6 (5). Roddick's shirttail is always flapping when he booms record-velocity serves and ferocious forehands, but this time his jersey and shorts were stained with grass and dirt from numerous dives on the turf trying to thwart Johansson's passing shots.

The pivotal juncture was the third-set tiebreaker. It didn't reach the grandeur, but rekindled some memories, of the 34-point "Battle of 18-16" in the 1980 final, when Borg lost the fourth-set 'breaker to John McEnroe but won his fifth consecutive and last gentlemen's singles title. The BBC showed that evergreen classic during the rain delay on Friday. Roddick and Johansson caught some of it on the telly. Their match was dead even at that stage, and the tiebreaker was well-played and splendidly suspenseful until Roddick -- who had saved three set points -- seized his third with a thunderous serve down the middle to take it, 12 points to 10.

It was during that magnificent 22-minute tiebreaker a quarter of a century ago that it hit McEnroe just how special the aura of Centre Court is. "You could definitely feel something in the air, more so than I've ever felt anywhere else. It was just the way it was really quiet," McEnroe said, spellbound still by the experience. "No one was saying a word. You could hear everything. That's when I knew this was the way tennis should be."

I asked Roddick if he could describe the atmosphere, the tension, the hush amid appreciative bursts of applause and cheering during the third-set tiebreaker with Johansson. "It was pretty intense," he said. "You don't start a tiebreaker thinking it's going to go 12-10. Backwards and forwards. I was so kind of keyed in on the match, I wasn't focusing too much on what was going on around me -- for a change." McEnroe had focused on that, either, he just noticed and knew this was the way tennis should be.

The fourth set went to a tiebreaker, too, which turned when Roddick's return of serve clipped the net cord and fell over for a winner to bring him to 6-5. Roddick raised his arm apologetically, then pounded another huge first serve that Johansson could only grope into the net. Game, set, match.

"It was lucky," Roddick said of the fortuitous net cord, confirming the obvious. "The timing of it couldn't have been any better for me. I felt guilty about it for a second, but then I got over it." It's still a gentlemen's game, but hey, there are limits.

Roddick was asked if he was relieved to get through. "Excited probably more than relieved. Relieved is maybe what I felt in the second round," he said, referring to the rain-suspended 5-setter he survived against Italian journeyman Daniele Bracciali. "But today I felt like I played great stuff. The level of the tennis was very, very high. I'm glad I was able to kind of keep it up and stay the course and get another shot at Roger."

Roddick, a year younger than Federer at 22, won the 2003 U.S. Open. He has a competitor's mentality, too. Bring on the champ. This is the way tennis should be.

Federer has cruised to the final losing only one set, to Nicolas Kiefer in the fourth round.

"I watched bits and pieces of pretty much all his matches. You know, he's a pretty good tennis player," Roddick deadpanned. "It's going to be fun. I feel like I'm playing pretty well. Today I thought I played very well. I'm excited to have a go, for sure."

Roddick knows that practically no one fancies his chances of winning, but he is serving exceptionally well, which is the key to his game. He got 75 percent of his first serves in, and his second serve was a weapon as well. Against Johansson, he had 19 aces. He has not had a double fault in his last nine sets.

"I don't remember the last time I made it through nine sets in this kind of intensity without dumping some serves," Roddick said. "Early on here, I wasn't hitting my second serve great, but it started clicking the last couple of days."

He knows he will need everything clicking to have a chance against an on-form Federer.

"There's no question that he's been a better player over the past two years. That's a given. No one would argue otherwise," Roddick said, addressing his 0-4 head-to-head record since his only win over Federer, 7-6 in the third set on a hard court in Canada in 2003. Overall, Federer leads the series 8-1, which belies calling it as a rivalry. "The thing I try to think of is, I have to be better this time," Roddick continued, "not for the next 10 years, not for the next whatever. I have to be better this time. That's the kind of mindset I have to take into it."

In last year's final, Roddick won the first set and was in the match until a rain delay. When play resumed, Federer changed tactics and started following his serve to the net more, pulling away 4-6, 7-5, 7-6, 6-4.

Asked if he needs to throw caution to the often-swirling wind on Centre Court and take the risks, Roddick said: "At times, but I'm not going to try to overplay. At times in last year's final, I tried to play too well. Some things can get away from you. I'm going to have to go in and play my game and play well. It's as simple as that."

Well, actually not. There is nothing simple about trying to solve Federer at Wimbledon.

"Hopefully he'll think about it a little bit more than last year," Roddick said. "It comes down to big points. He won them last year. I'm going to have to try to win them this year."

But Federer had already said that his greatest strength is consistency, and that consistency comes from "mental strength." Again, that's not hubris, but the self-awareness of a champion. "I feel like I always go into every match knowing I can win it if my form is there," Federer said. "And if I'm not playing so well, sometimes I know that I can sneak through and just wait for the big moments, that I can play my good tennis right then. I think knowing that is very important because tennis is quite a mental sport."

Roddick, to his credit, is trying to take a page from Federer's preparation playbook and concentrate on what he can do on his side of the net.

"I can't really do more than play at my optimum," he said. "I have to hope that it's the best at the big moments. That's what Roger does so well. He's so talented. He plays the same at 5-all in the tiebreaker as he does at 2-1, 40-love on his serve in the first set. That's what separates him.

"I don't know if many people are expecting me to win, so it's a different situation. I'm going to come out and play free and I'm going to go after him. I'm going to at least try to take it to him a little bit."

That is the right attitude, the way tennis should be. But you can't escape the feeling that Roddick is going to be a heavy-hitting windmill, tilting furiously -- and in the end, futilely -- at the game's most accomplished and seldom-errant knight. The once and future gentlemen's singles champion.

Barry Lorge, former Washington Post staff writer and sports editor/columnist of The San Diego Union, has covered tennis in more than 25 countries on five continents. He co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.