Sunday, July 5, 2009

Federer Perseveres: Secures 15th Slam After Titanic Struggle With Roddick

If the pressure of playing a Wimbledon final wasn't enough for Roger Federer, he could simply take a peek into the crowd at Sampras, Borg, Laver, and Nastase, all dressed immaculately, and whispering politely amongst themselves in the Royal box.

All this tennis luminescence, on hand to witness his crowning achievement.

What pressure?

As the Wimbledon men's final got underway, we were immediately treated to a glimpse of both Federer the immortal and Federer the human. Roger, surprisingly flat at times, and typically divine at others, seemed to be slipping in and out of both characters today on Centre Court.

And Roddick, seemingly impervious to the pressure and enjoying playing the role of spoiler yet again, also proved that he was not immune to it all. His epic meltdown in the second set tiebreaker happened just as Federer was slipping into his immortal costume. With four set points in the tiebreak, Roddick was one nasty serve from a two sets to love lead against Federer - something he had never held in their previous 20 encounters.

What has always been second nature for a power player like Roddick - strangling a tentative opponent when he's down - suddenly became impossible. He burned through set points like a tennis luminary burns through frequent flyer miles.

It was the beginning of the end for Roddick - before he had even realized that the match was his for the taking it no longer was. Or was it the end of the beginning? The way that Federer seemed to change from hunter to hunted, from believer to doubter, it was truly hard to tell.

This was a tense match from the beginning, with Federer unable to find the comfort zone that we typically see him in, and Roddick happy to benefit from that fact.

Neither player could challenge the others serve until the 11th game of the first set. It was Federer who earned the first opportunity to take the set, as Roddick committed a cluster of unforced errors (his first three of the set) and found himself facing not one, but four break points in total. On the third it appeared that Federer had broken through with a forehand winner, but a Hawk-Eye challenge by Roddick reversed the outcome of the point.

After fighting off the last of four break points Roddick quickly found himself with a chance to break the Federer serve. The Omaha native did just that, as Federer punched a down-the-line forehand wide and much to the surprise of everyone, the first set was Roddick's.

The second set was similar to the first, with neither player yielding on serve.

Federer, however, seemed to be playing under pressure. It was as if he was unsure as to whether or not he wanted to shed his human skin and slip into the velvety smooth epidermis of the immortal. One had to wonder if he had mistakenly perceived that the person across the net from him was Rafael Nadal. How could it be that he was in danger of going down 2 sets to love against his long time rag-doll?

However unimaginable, it was true.

Roddick's face wore a look of disbelief as he reeled off points in the second set tiebreaker. Then it happened. Roddick's meltdown coincided chronologically with Federer's uncanny and perfectly timed grace under pressure, and when the Americans backhand volley sailed several feet wide the two players were tied at the changeover, 6-6.

Two more points and the match was even. A colossal opportunity had been wasted, but Roddick, gritty American that he is, would not relent.

On the strength of his serve (27 aces in the match), Roddick managed to force a third set tiebreaker, but this time it was Federer who reeled off points, and while Roddick was able to fight off the first two set points, Federer was able to get the set point he needed by following up a booming serve out wide with a forehand winner.

Trailing 2-1, given the circumstances , it seemed that the time was ripe for Federer to turn on the afterburners and give the public a glimpse of the immortality that we've all gotten accustomed to seeing from him.

No such luck.

It was Roddick who scored the break, in the fourth game of the fourth set, and Federer could not answer.

Just as the last two Wimbledon finals had come down to a 5th set, so too would this match.

Roddick, now invigorated and adrenalized, seemed to sense victory.

Federer, meanwhile, seemed to be sensing defeat.

At the three hour mark the late afternoon sun was still making its presence felt on Centre Court.

The crowd, always dignified at Wimbledon, seemed neutral, almost distant from the match and detached from the the allure of Federer's greatness. They were like a human sponge, just taking it in, not feeling inclined to try to influence the outcome of the match.

Half way through the set neither had come close to breaking serve. If it was going to happen it was going to happen fast.

Beautiful and serene summer clouds floated overhead, contrasting with the tense flavor of the tennis.

While the rallies were succinct, the serving was brilliant.

The set was level at 5-5 with Federer serving almost as quickly as it had started. Now, one small hiccup of a game was going to determine the Championship. Two weeks of mental and physical warfare had been amalgamated into this immense pressure vacuum where every service game now represented winning or losing the title.

Federer with everything to lose, and Roddick with nothing to lose.

Shadows, finally making their presence felt in a small corner of the grass, just outside the tramlines.

Federer, in exactly the same spot that he found himself in last year, serving at 6-6 in the 5th set.

Make that 8-8.

Facing two break points in the 17th game, Federer slipped into his immortal costume to wiggle himself out of trouble. But always, he seemed to revert back to his other self when Roddick prepared to serve.

Roddick, meanwhile, was playing remarkably, blasting forehands the likes of which we'd never seen from him against Federer.

Yet more than anything, this match was a tale of two Federer's. And it would be decided eventually, one got the feeling, by the stronger of the two. Was he human or was he immortal?

Make that 9-9.

The Wimbledon record for the longest 5th set added to the dramatic flair, as the shadows finally worked themselves inside a small corner of the singles court.

Roddick a pillar of belief, Federer an undefinable pillar, a mixture of so much belief and doubt, a god seemingly stuck in his own purgatory, unable to break the Roddick serve for almost four hours now.

Make that 10-10, eclipsing the Wimbledon final record for games played in a match.

In the 22nd game, A small sliver of opportunity opened for Federer as he got to deuce on the Roddick serve, but it was quickly and confidently closed by a booming first serve.

Make that 11-11.

Shadows now covering significant portions of one half of the court. The crowd still refraining from encouraging either player too much, letting the action come to them, happy to be getting quite a bit more than their money's worth.

Make that 12-12.

This is clearly a battle of wills, a contest of belief, a test of mettle. Federer's 20th ace of the set gets him another hold, and another chance at the Roddick serve.

Make that 13-13. The word epic comes to mind, but I don't think it would do this fifth set justice.

Like a record perpetually skipping, this improbably pressurized match lingered on.

As if the gods of tennis were not happy with Federer's effort yet, as if they wanted him to truly work for it.

Make that 14-14. Shadows encroaching on the net.

Then, in the 30th game of the set, with Federer clinging to a 15-14 lead, a glimmer of light appears.

A break point for Federer is erased, but Roddick surrenders another one, and this one he can't erase.

This was the moment. Taken out of context it would appear to be just another point, but in the context of this match, and of Federer's career, it is ethereal. It is as magical as any of us could have ever imagined it to be. Roddick's flubbed forehand sails long and Federer has passed this long and difficult test.

The immortal Federer (the one who served 50 aces, including 22 in the 5th set), standing human and flawed at the door for the entirety of this grueling struggle, has now passed through. He's beyond all this - we can't judge him now. We can only marvel at his unparallelled success in the sport.
Federer prevails, 5-7, 7-6(6), 7-6(5), 3-6, 16-14, over a heroic adversary who didn't deserve to lose.

His 15th grand-slam title and 6th Wimbledon championship came in the most improbable fashion. At times it looked like it wasn't coming.

We should have known better.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Men's Final Preview: Federer Eyes 15th Grand-Slam

Andy Roddick has never lost at Wimbledon with Brooklyn Decker as his wife.

Too bad for him that the theme of tomorrow's Wimbledon Final may very well be that records are made to be broken.

Wife or no wife, Roddick's chances against the 14-time Grand-Slam and 5-time Wimbledon champion look pretty bleak. His 2-18 record against Federer can attest to that, as can his 0-6 record against the Swiss Maestro in Grand Slams, or his 0-3 record against Federer at Wimbledon. Should I go on or do you get the point?

But there is something about the transformation that Roddick has undergone this year under the tutelage of newly hired coach Larry Stefanki, and the level of commitment and belief that he seems to embody these days, that is different from the Roddick of the past few years.

"I'm excited about this one," said Roddick. "I didn't know if I was going to get to play a Wimbledon Final again. I'm certainly thankful to have the opportunity."

But Federer has undergone a resurrection of his own over the course of 2009. Practically written off by everyone except for himself after his heartbreaking loss to Rafael Nadal in Australia this winter, the great Federer went into a tailspin the likes of which we'd never seen him endure.

His once fluid and easy grace seemed forced and mechanical - so much so that not even he could believe what was happening.

Then, in a strange and remarkable chain of events that seemed to start with Nadal's stunning upset in Paris, Roger became Roger again. It wasn't sudden. It was more like the evaporation of a lingering doubt that finally disappeared in the heat of a Paris spring.

That doubt is clearly gone now. Rafa's stunning upset and subsequent injury have opened the door for Federer, and he's clearly up to the task of walking in and taking what he's always believed to be his - the 15th Grand-Slam and the parking spot outside the tennis hall-of-fame reserved for "the greatest of all-time."

Tomorrow's final will be the third Wimbledon final between Federer and Roddick. Roddick took the first set of their first final, but he wasn't able to take another set, losing in '04 in 4 sets and in '05 in straight sets.

The pair have a long and one-sided history, with Roddick usually coming in to their matches like a lion and going out like a lamb. Roddick's patented booming serve seems almost docile when Federer is standing the other side of the net against him, and Roddick's kamikaze charges to the net against Federer almost always seem to end up in vain.

Even when Roddick has managed to play well enough to win against Federer, he's been unable seal the deal in tight sets - he's 3-10 in tiebreakers vs. Federer.

At times Roddick's failures have seemed to stem from psychological shortcomings - he doesn't really believe he can beat Federer so his body is just doing what his mind is telling it to do, but at others it just appears as if Federer is on another planet - a place that guys like Roddick only get to visit for a thrashing.

That being said, Roddick has clearly benefited from the hard work that he has done to get himself into top physical form this year. We've seen him outshine Novak Djokovic in the Australian heat this winter, and after a solid run (best of his career) in Paris, he's come to Wimbledon like a man on a mission. His win over Andy Murray yesterday may have been the most impressive of his career - not just the win but the fact that he outplayed Murray from the baseline, and tactically as well.

If there ever was a time that Roddick might believe that he could actually give Federer a match on a stage as grand as this, this could be it.

But Federer is so good at moments like these, it's truly hard to imagine him letting this golden opportunity to ascend to the peak of the tennis world once and for all slip by.

Not only will he become the only player to win 15 Grand-Slams with a victory - he'll also regain the no. 1 ranking that he lost to Rafael Nadal in August of 2008.

"If you achieved a lot like I did for so many years, and then you don't win some tournaments, people say you're on the decline very quickly," said Federer. "But I hope it opens some eyes at least these last few months, because they have been very different maybe from what people expected."

In mid March, not many people expected that Federer would be on the verge of rewriting the history books tomorrow, nor did they imagine that Roddick would be the man he would be trying to do it against.

Regardless of the outcome of tomorrow's Wimbledon final, tennis fans can be sure they'll be pleasantly surprised when it's all over.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Williams Sisters to Meet in Fourth Wimbledon Final

Richard Williams absence in the coaches box can only mean one thing when the Wimbledon Women's singles final gets underway tomorrow.

Yet again, he's done his job.

The father and long time coach of the girls prefers to head home rather than watch his daughters try to dismantle one another on the court. "I can't even watch on T.V." said the outspoken Williams. "I can't watch my daughters play each other, I'd probably have a heart-attack."

The illimitable Williams sisters, who collectively hold 7 Wimbledon titles (5 for Venus and 2 for Serena), will notch number 8 tomorrow. That is a definite. The only thing that remains to be seen is which sister will hold up the Venus Rosewater trophy at Centre Court after the match.

And, as is always the case, flipping a coin might give you your best chances if you're looking to guess the winner.

In 20 previous matches, the dynamic sisters have scored 10 victories apiece. In 4 Wimbledon tilts, they have split 4, and in 2009, each sister has taken a match from the other, both in 3 sets.

The edge has gone to Serena when it comes to finals of Grand Slams, however. Serena has beaten her sister in two Wimbledon Finals (2002 and 2003), one U.S. Open final (2002), one Australian Open final (2003), and one French final (2002).

Venus, meanwhile, defeated her sister in the finals of the U.S. Open (2001) and at Wimbledon last year.

But Serena's knows that her sister has become more dangerous on the Wimbledon grass in the past few years. Venus is riding a 20 match winning streak, and she is also in the midst of a remarkable streak of 34 consecutive sets won.

"Well, you know, I feel like going into this final I have nothing to lose," said Serena when asked about the daunting challenge of playing her older sister on grass. "I feel like obviously she's playing the best tennis at this tournament."

She got that right. Along with winning every set, Venus has only dropped 19 games in the tournament, and has needed just 6 and a half hours to get it done.

Venus, while confident for many obvious reasons, is not taking her younger sister lightly. "Even if Serena is not playing her best it's just that fight that she has, you're facing that. So there's so much to face when you play her, it's definitely a lot to get your mind around."

Venus, playing in her 8th final at the All England Club, is looking to become the first woman since Steffi Graf in 1993 to win three consecutive Wimbledon finals.

Serena doesn't have quite the legacy at Wimbledon, but a win would give her an 11th Grand-Slam title, drawing her within one of the legend Billie Jean King, who closed her career with 12.

For three sets tomorrow the sisters will try to deny each other of achieving these milestones. But when it's all said and done they'll go home, share some dinner and have a good laugh about it.
How cool is that?