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.


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