Swiss made cuckoo clock - and Federer

Sideline Cut : Not even the weather can dampen the ardour of the English crowd for Roger Federer, the Swiss genius who is playing…

Sideline Cut: Not even the weather can dampen the ardour of the English crowd for Roger Federer, the Swiss genius who is playing not so much against mankind this July as against the history books.

Experts in the string game reckon the Fed-Ex might be the finest all-round tennis practitioner in the history of the world. Who are we to argue? He certainly looks like he knows his stuff when you see him play on television.

For such a pleasant and seemingly inoffensive people, the poor old Swiss have got a rough press over the years. Ever since the 1949 filming of Graham Greene's The Third Man, they have been trying to deal with the immortal put down: "Five-hundred years of democracy and peace and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock."

The great English travel writer Jonathan Raban was even more damning 30 years later; he dismissed Switzerland as " a whole country of phobic handwashers living in a giant Barclay's Bank".


The Swiss politely got on with the business of enjoying high-quality snow and crafting exquisite if criminally expensive watches. But now, out of the blue, they have produced arguably the most complete sportsman of the modern era, who just happens to be about as gracious as human beings come.

It made perfect sense that the Swedes habitually procreated champion tennis players every generation or so but the arrival of Federer was somewhat leftfield.

Those of us who spent yesterday afternoon throwing sandbags against the front door or sheltering from the latest monsoon by watching Federer routinely deconstruct Juan Carlos Ferrero learned that nothing is going to stop him winning his fifth Wimbledon.

If you listened keenly enough to Boris Becker's bass-line drone, it was possible to detect the lovable old German is deeply impressed by Federer's game. (It is impossible not to chortle when listening to Boris commentate, even though he has eminently sensible things to say about tennis, because he sounds for all the world like McBain from The Simpsons. I am certain that during Wimbledon's one-sided games - ie, when Federer is playing - tens of thousands of television devotees amuse themselves by trying to imitate Boris).

But the competitor in Becker knows that Federer, with his incredible grace and supple strokes and disconcerting Bananaman jaw-line, is gradually working towards eclipsing all the previous greats who bestrode centre court - Becker included.

Federer's feat of winning the Australian Open back in January without dropping so much as a miserable set was indicative as much of his iron concentration as of his astonishing tennis ability. Yesterday, he had the good manners to actually lose a set but then closed out the match like a man who realised he had a plane to catch.

Barring southwest London actually getting lost in rainwater, Federer will win his fifth championship at the All England Lawn Tennis Club over the next few days. That will leave him alongside Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver with 11 titles and short odds to close on Pete Sampras's haul of 14 majors, including seven at Wimbledon. Federer is only in his mid-20s, has the temperament of a Buddhist and no obvious weakness for booze, casinos or any of the other distractions. He is a freak, out there on his own.

Imagine what Ireland would do if we had a sportsperson that brilliant - besides probably insisting the poor bastard enter the Leinster hurling championship. It might actually become tedious, holding nationwide piss-ups for every major tournament knowing we would be cheering certain victory for the bones of a decade.

But it says a lot for the effortless grasp Wimbledon holds on our affections that so many of us are glued to it even though the outcome is virtually predestined.

But then, it was always so. Back in 1971 the tennis fraternity was struggling to cope with the phenomenon that was Rod Laver. That year's tournament was the subject of a famous essay by John McPhee, and of the Australian player he wrote, "Winning is everything to tennis players although more than 99 percent of them are certain losers - and they expect to lose to him. Laver, who has a narrow and delicate face, freckles, a hawk's nose, thinning red hair and the forearm of a Dungeness crab, is known to them all as Rocket. Roy McKelvie, dean of English tennis writers, notifies all the other tennis writers that beating Laver would be a feat comparable to the running of the first four-minute mile."

That perplexing middle ground between admiration and despair is what unites other players and the crowd in their feelings towards Federer so many years on. Half a decade of Federer brilliance does not diminish Wimbledon's appeal, however.

The Europeans and the Americans have always loved the essential weirdness of the place - the curtseying before royalty, the pretence that this is a "summer" tournament, the inscrutability and apparent blindness of so many of the umpires and, of course, the unrelenting, stiff-upper-lip etiquette of the hosts.

In his essay of 36 years ago, McPhee wrote that only two men ever entered the ladies' dressingroom in the history of the tournament: a blind masseur and (of course) a Frenchman. The Gallic invader was Jean Borotra, who bluffed his way into the chambers and was promptly stripped of his Wimbledon crown.

There has always been that sense of the whole tennis carnival as an endless human drama - a soap opera with more ankle sprains than usual. Tennis has produced its fair share of eccentric sports people over the years, and half the fun is in watching their tics and breakdowns and the glum, pensive faces of their families in the stands. The great drama of the past week was when Serena Williams managed to beat one of the anorexic Eastern Europeans despite having the use of just one gam.

Williams produced the most extravagant limp since Verbal Kint hobbled his way to infamy in The Usual Suspects. It looked as though she was just waiting to be finished off but through the combination of pluck and stubbornness (and the fact she could bench press Roger Federer) the Brits are suckers for, she actually succeeded in destroying her opponent. It goes in the catalogue of memorable Wimbledon moments.

Even those of us who only ever held a tennis racket for a few ill-fated minutes in school will know enough to appreciate that what the best players in the world do is preposterously difficult.

Maybe Federer is the greatest of all time, although anyone aged eight or over in the early 1980s has probably formed an unbreakable belief that McEnroe was and ever will be the residing genius in the tennis pantheon. But in terms of titles, Federer is leaving Superbrat for dead. As Becker said, "Fed-ah-ah haz za hard of za champion."

Dan Maskell could not have put it better.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times