End of a streak for Federer but not of an era

 

THE TENNIS world order was shaken on Sunday night but it was not recreated in the form of Rafael Nadal. Roger Federer is still the best player in the world. He remains at number one, a ranking he has occupied since February 2nd, 2004, a streak of 231 weeks, writes Johnny Watterson.

While many will see Nadal's triumph over the five-time champion as the changing of the guard, it is no such thing. Even Nadal acknowledges Federer is still the leading force in the game.

"I am very happy for me but sorry for him because he deserves the title too," said Nadal. "He has history with five. I have one."

For Federer the words may ring hollow; with the defeat many of his streaks and record bids have come to a shuddering halt. The principal one, to equal and beat the Pete Sampras mark of 14 Grand Slam victories, remains a goal he is no less able to achieve than he was 12 months ago. That quest will resume after the Olympics, when the tennis world descends on New York for the US Open.

Had Federer lost in straight sets to the impossibly athletic Nadal instead of making it one of the greatest finals in memory, it might have put a different complexion on the future of the Swiss. Humiliation in Roland Garros followed by another one-sided final on the court that has been his for so long might have left deep scars.

Federer's reaction after the match was generous, yet irritated and quietly defiant. His irritation, visible as the two shook hands after the match and again in his post-match interview, appeared to have several reasons. He was furious with himself primarily because he had so many chances to win the match. But Nadal's time-wasting and the fading light were also factors, none of which the former champion used as excuses.

Missing put-away volleys at the net, plunging his forehand long for no reason, spurning chances - such lapses are anathema to a player of his brilliance. Federer was far below his best in terms of consistency, and against the breathtaking physicality of Nadal, periodic magic was simply not enough.

"It's probably my hardest loss by far," he said later. "I mean it's not much harder than this right now."

He was asked about the endgame. Was it too dark? "What can I tell you?" he said tersely.

Why then had he kept going?

"I didn't argue. I guess I would have said something if I'd broken back to go eight all because it wasn't possible to play anymore. It would have been brutal for fans, for media, for us to come back tomorrow. But what are you gonna do? It's rough on me now to maybe lose the biggest tournament in the world over a bit of light."

Federer hit 25 aces but with 52 unforced errors he was handing points back to Nadal at almost twice the rate Nadal was giving free points to him. He earned 13 break points on the Nadal serve but could convert only one in the first set. Nadal also earned 13 against Federer but turned four of those into service breaks. That equates to eight per cent for Federer, 31 per cent for Nadal.

But the time taken by Nadal between serves was also a factor, and when the umpire issued the time violation, he did so because the Spaniard was being a repeat offender. Routines are critical to a player's serve mechanism but the repeated bouncing and towelling make something of a nonsense of the record attributed to Sunday's match: four hours and 48 minutes.

Nadal rubs down his arm after every point. Did the longest Wimbledon final in the open era (before Sunday night), a Bjorn Borg v Jimmy Connors dogfight of four hours and 16 minutes in 1982, require mini-breaks after every point (even if Connors had a chronic habit of fixing shoelaces)?

But it has been Nadal's summer and the final will be remembered for his miraculous returning; like Andre Agassi, he forces opponents to beat him twice in order to win a point - because he always gets to one of the "winners".

We also got a glimpse of Nadal's human side; in the fourth-set tiebreak the man of granite was fighting as hard with himself as with Federer to hold it together.

"He was really nervous," said the Swiss. "He was really feeling it a lot, maybe for the first time in his life. But I couldn't really play my best when I really had to. And towards the end with the light, it was tough. But it's not an excuse."

The 22-year old became the first Spaniard to take the men's singles crown since Manolo Santana in 1966. He was also the first to take the opening two sets off Federer during the champion's long reign and the first to beat him on Centre Court in five years.

Nadal's magical left arm and, as vouched for by the journalists who speak to him in Spanish, simple humility make him a champion in the Federer mould.

But he is not Federer just yet.

Peak viewing

The Wimbledon men's final was watched by 13.1 million television viewers in Britain.

The five-minute peak was recorded around 9.15pm, when Rafael Nadal finally beat Roger Federer, and represented almost half - 47.6 per cent - of the TV audience. The average audience throughout the men's final was 8.6 million on BBC1.

But the 1980 game between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe still holds the all-time audience record - 17.3 million.