The Return of the King

20120709Wimbledon

I’ve been religiously watching Wimbledon finals since I was about five, but yesterday’s held a special sort of joy that I haven’t experienced in many years – the joy of seeing greatness revived. Last year, Brian Phillips wrote a touching, perceptive piece about the long autumn of Roger Federer’s career, a prolonged “still” phase – “The saddest moment in the career of a great athlete is the one when he’s tagged with the word ‘still’,” he wrote.

The “still” phase doesn’t last long for many sports stars – Andre Agassi, Martina Navratilova, Ryan Giggs, Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi are a few notable exceptions, I guess – but Federer has been gliding along in this “still” phase for so many years now, possibly since his epic 2008 Wimbledon defeat to Rafa Nadal. That’s about as long as he was in his prime, in fact.

That has an inevitable impact on our perception of him. “But because he’s been ‘still great’ for so long – because we keep seeing the end coming, even if it never actually comes – Federer has also acquired an aura of weird sadness over the past few years that’s hard to reconcile with the way we used to think about him,” says Phillips, pinpointing the peculiar sense of regret that hangs over Federer with the same accuracy that used to come from Fed’s fearsome forehand.

But yesterday, against Andy Murray, his long autumn turned into an Indian summer, and it was beautiful to behold. And it was all the more startling because he started with such evident nervousness, so filled with tension and apprehension. We all wondered whether he “still” had that grace, “still” had that magic, and for the first few games it looked like he was wondering the same thing himself.

Then he struck at the end of the second set, a glimmer of his previous self, dispatching impossible shots at impossibly high-pressure moments with ease. But we’ve seen this before, the apparent restoration of his powers, only to be disappointed as the casual errors return and the nerves take hold – against Del Potro in the US Open in 2009, against Djokovic in the US Open in 2010 and 2011, against Tsonga at Wimbledon last year, and of course against Nadal, over and over again.

But it was the epic sixth game of the third set in yesterday’s match that was pivotal, an exhilarating, extraordinary 18-minute classic that will go down as one of the best games in Wimbledon final history.

It hardly seemed like a critical stage of the match, play only recently resumed under the roof after a 40-minute rain break, the game effectively restarting as a best-of-three affair with the players level. There seemed to be so much left to unwind in this narrative, so many twists and turns remaining as Murray and Federer jostled for superiority. Instead, it took 18 minutes for Federer to effectively win the championship.

Murray cantered to a 40-0 lead, but his first serve was already showing signs of weakness, faulting on his first two first serves. However, a neat backhand winner in the first point and an ace in the third suggested he was not about to get into trouble. But serving to win the game to love, he faulted yet again, a flicker of doubt creeping into his game. Federer won that point, imperiously swishing a winning backhand off Murray’s weak second serve, and the next in similar fashion.

It was the sixth point that proved the turning point, a long rally that saw Federer force Murray around the court, as if the Scot was a yoyo at the end of a string, spinning back and forth with every effortless flick of the Federer wrist.

Murray’s tenacity was typical, admirable, his ability to chase lost causes astonishing – he retrieved a sublime backhand into the corner, then a smash, then finally, as he raced to the net to return a drop shot, he slipped and hit the turf hard.

Boxing analogies are overused and rarely apt, but this had the feel of a brave fighter hitting the canvas after taking an unexpected flurry of artful punches. It was deuce, and as Murray winced and picked himself up, the equilibrium had changed decisively. He had let slip a 40-0 lead, and was being toyed with. Federer strolled back to the baseline, composed, prowling almost. Everybody could sense what was going to happen, and everybody could see Murray knew it too – it was palpable in his body language and his visible frustration, never mind his failing first serve and creeping unforced errors on those rare moments he had the initiative.

There were eight, nine, 10 deuces, with advantage switching back and forth, and Murray was clinging on, having to save five break points. Federer was waging one of his calmly furious assaults, the sort he used to summon with such frightening ease in his prime. Twice more Murray hit the grass as he chased the ball, like that boxer returning to the canvas, then struggling back to his feet to continue the good fight, against dwindling odds.

After chasing one precise lob back to the baseline, he landed upside down, his head on the soil, torso arced above him, legs in the air, slowly reaching for the ground beyond his head. Turned upside down – it was the perfect visual metaphor for what Federer was doing to him. After 18 minutes, Murray could withstand the assault no longer, and was broken. He never regained the initiative, nor looked like being able to.

Before our eyes, Federer was rolling back the years, casting off that “still” tag, reverting once more to the player described by David Foster Wallace, in that justly famous piece of literary sportswriting, as embodying “kinetic beauty”, a member once again of that class of “rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws”.

The sixth game of the third set was pivotal in dictating the outcome of the match, and it may prove pivotal in Federer’s late-career bloom. Will there be a prolonged resurgence, or was this a final flourish? If it’s the former, that game will be held up as the moment he rejuvenated his career; if the latter, it will be remembered as the final, crowning achievement on a lustrous reign. Either way, that “aura of weird sadness” that Phillips wrote about has gone, for good now – the king of the courts is back at last.

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