Federer back on top and better than ever


TENNIS:AS ROGER Federer took on Andy Murray here yesterday, he was wearing a vest under his shirt to protect a back injury which had cropped up earlier in the tournament. By the time Murray’s final forehand flew wide, the only surprise was that he did not rip off the shirt to reveal a big S for Superman.

Two months short of his 31st birthday, Federer is back on top of the world again, with 17 grand slam titles to his name and a seventh Wimbledon in the bag.

In his on-court speech, an emotional Murray said that people had been suggesting to him that Federer was past it, that his genius was fading and that he was there for the taking. The Scot knew that it was heresy, that although the Swiss had not won a grand slam title since 2010 – when he beat Murray to win the Australian Open – Federer had been there or thereabouts, losing only close matches.

He knew that Federer was a man-mountain to overcome, particularly at Wimbledon, and though he threw everything at him, Murray fell short.

As the three-times champion Boris Becker said a minute or two after the match: “There is no shame in losing to Roger Federer.”

Much as Serena Williams bounced back from adversity to win the women’s title, so Federer proved the critics wrong once more. The Swiss has not had to endure the physical problems faced by Williams, but in the past few years he has been written off with every “failure” to win a grand slam. The feeling was that with the advancement of age he was now just a little vulnerable over five sets, that his endurance could be tested and even exploited by the younger guns.

That may well be the case but yesterday Federer showed that he is as good, in some ways even better, than he was when he was able to mop up three grand slam titles in 2004, 2006 and 2007. His forehand may not be as devastating as it was, but his serve remains criminally under-rated, his movement is still near-perfect and when he is on, he makes the game look simple, which it really isn’t.

Having equalled the record of seven Wimbledon titles held by William Renshaw and Pete Sampras, around a century apart, there is little doubt that he is the greatest player of all time. Rafael Nadal, with 11 grand slam titles and four years younger, could yet push his claim, but at present Federer is head and shoulders clear of the rest.

With Nadal and then Novak Djokovic last year winning three of the four grand slam titles, returning to the world number one spot is a phenomenal achievement. To get there he has increased his schedule, but more importantly he has performed when it matters. The top ranking may change a couple more times this year but Federer has now equalled Sampras’s record of 286 weeks at the top and will overtake him a week today.

Technically, he is perhaps a better player than he ever was. His backhand, once a relative weakness, is now a superb shot and though it is not as much of a weapon as his forehand, in some ways it is more reliable. No one is completely perfect, and there are still weaknesses. When he plays Nadal he believes he can cope with the Spaniard hitting high to his backhand, and even against Murray he let the Scot target that side more often than he should. But he also had the ability to realise, before it was too late, that he needed to be aggressive on the Murray second serves and, having chipped them back for the best part of two sets, he attacked and got his reward.

If the Federer serve is under-rated then so is his return. Can there ever have been a player, certainly a single-hander, who gets more first serves back into play, in crucial matches and at crucial times, than Federer? It looks as if he just sticks his racket out, but he invariably gets it back into play and deep enough to allow him to dominate.

And no one hits the kind of shots Federer can hit. At 2-1 up in the third set he tried to run around his backhand but got cramped by the depth and accuracy of a Murray backhand. What did he do? Moving backwards and slightly off balance, he carved a delicate drop shot that feathered over the net and left Murray stranded.

At one point in the fourth set he made out as if to play a drop shot, but as Murray moved forward in anticipation he sliced the ball deep into the corner. Few players even think about doing that, let alone are capable of doing it. Federer merely allowed himself a little smile.

Happily married and with young twin girls, his hunger to keep playing and to keep winning – again like Williams – shows no sign of fading. In three weeks’ time he will return to Wimbledon to try to win one of the few things missing from his resume, an Olympic singles gold medal.

He says he is already thinking about the next Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. By that time he will be almost 35 and though it is hard to believe he will still be contending for grand slam titles, perhaps only a fool would write him off.

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