You can’t help but feeling sorry for his opponents. There is no weakness in his game to plan on exploiting. When he powers his 125 MPH serve, you pray your racket can find the ball. His cross court forehand – “The best shot in our game,” according to John McEnroe – has opponents giving up on getting to the ball before he hits it. And in recent years his backhand has improved so much that serving to it is just asking for trouble.
But what Roger Federer has that no other player of this generation of tennis stars can boast is the Tiger Woods-like ability to rise to the occasion when the most coveted titles in his sport are on the line. In an incredible run of success, Federer has won 6 of the last 8 tennis majors (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open). He was runner up the last two years in the French Open, including a memorable 4 set loss in 2006 to his chief rival and nemesis — the number two ranked player in the world — Rafael Nadal. In fact Nadal, a clay court specialist, kept Federer from holding all four major titles at once with that victory at Roland Garros.
But on the manicured grass courts of Wimbledon, Federer has been unbeatable. If the seeded players win through as expected, it will once again be a Federer-Nadal match up in the finals on July 8 – if the weather holds.
Wimbledon being in England and this being summer, you can count on at least a day or two of rain to make things interesting. If enough matches are postponed later contests can start to run together, making rest for the top seeds a factor. It is not unusual for the eventual champion to play 4 matches the last 6 or 7 days of the tournament, a grueling test of conditioning when playing against the top players in the world.
But Federer has been up to every challenge Wimbledon can throw at him these past 4 years. His game is tailor made for grass. He moves fluidly to the ball, effortlessly maintaining his footing on the treacherous surface. He has learned to become more aggressive in moving toward the net on his own serve, winning points with volleys and half volleys rather than standing back on the baseline. This is important because the grass surface deteriorates over the fortnight at Wimbledon. Bad bounces become more common the deeper one goes into the tournament.
Speed, agility, reflexes, footwork – Federer is the entire package. But how does he stack up against the greats of the past?
Most recently, American Pete Sampras won a record 14 Grand Slam singles titles, including a jaw dropping 7 Wimbledon crowns in an 8 year period, four of those in a row. Federer beat Sampras in their only meeting – a fourth round upset by the then 19-year old Swiss phenom. Federer has 8 major titles under his belt and at age 25, and a real chance to best Sampras’ mark.
But good players in tennis are usually defined by the quality of their competition. In the late 1970′s and early 80′s – the heyday for interest in tennis in the United States – the triumvirate of Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe dominated the sport and made watching tennis a joy. Most matches involving two of those three resulted in titanic struggles with fabulous shot making, incredible saves, and the best net play ever seen. In addition to those three, there were several lesser players who could always be counted on to push the champions to the limit. Players like Mats Wilander, Vitas Gerulaitis, the colorful Argentine Guillermo Vilas, and the “nasty” Romanian Ilie NƒÉstase all won Grand Slam titles in the same era, making the period something of a golden age of men’s tennis.
Federer dominates a much different game today. The qualitative difference between the top seed and the number 8 seed is much larger than it has been in recent years. And there has been a precipitous fall off in interest in the game here in the United States. American Andy Roddick is ranked number 3 in the world, but has not had a second Grand Slam win since his 2003 US Open victory. The women’s game has closer competition, but again, no dominant Americans. The Williams sisters — Venus and Serena — have fallen in the rankings largely due to injuries. It remains to be seen whether either of them can return to form.
Of course, tennis is an international sport with wide appeal elsewhere and the fact that Americans are not in the ascendancy doesn’t seem to bother the rest of the tennis world. But in terms of advertising dollars and promotional opportunities, it would help the sport if a couple of American kids could start to show promise and begin their rise to the top of the rankings.
For Federer, it won’t matter. Barring serious injury, he is set to dominate the sport as perhaps no other player has in the recent past. A fifth straight Wimbledon title will place him in the pantheon of great champions who have graced the legendary courts at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.
Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nut House.