The Second Bite Doesn’t Taste as Sweet
London boasts of great sporting infrastructure. Over the past four weeks, we have seen the England vs South Africa test match series, the Silverstone Grand Prix, The British Open (Golf), ICC Women’s World Cup and the Wimbledon Championships. It’s also remarkable that each of these events has a deep rooted history attached to it. Each of the above tournaments is prestigious, a first-of-its-kind, the greatest sporting achievement – these phrases have been jumping out of the newspapers.
Enough and more has been said about Roger Federer’s 8th Wimbledon title. Another historic triumph for the Greatest Of All Time. His game has been praised for its grace, unreal accuracy and age defying agility. A lot has also been said about how this Wimbledon was meant to be his; an injury ridden Wimbledon where the defending champion and a three time champion bowed out due to injury; a Wimbledon where the other two in the top 5 were defeated before the quarter finals; a Wimbledon where the other finalist also needed medical attention; a Wimbledon which received flak for its poor maintenance of the lawns. This does draw away from Federer’s victory – it’s almost as if the victory was too easy for him. It’s not special anymore.
Here’s a look at why Federer deserves more credit than he’s received this Wimbledon (apologies for the biased writing, big fan here. Actually no, I am not sorry.)
After his 7th Wimbledon title in 2012, Roger went through a “slump”. He didn’t win even a single Grand Slam title, his ranking slipped and 2016 saw him win nothing. Many said his time has come. His game is over. He must retire. And these weren’t his haters. His fans couldn’t watch him lose to players outside the top 100. We couldn’t bear to see his backhand exploited by every player, and the uncertainty with which every groundstroke was played was scary. This was the worst period of his career – he reached three grand slam finals and he won the Olympic doubles gold. It is this high standard of his own game which he set, leading us to believe that any other player’s dream run was his difficult time. His invincibility shield had been broken, and credit for this goes to Nadal.
Between 2003 and 2008, Federer was untouchable. His strokes were beyond perfection and nobody could stop him. Except the Mallorcan whose top spin would make Shane Warne weak in his knees. The left-handed top spin cross court forehand would reach Roger’s backhand at an unplayable height. What was once his deadliest weapon became his Achilles heel. Until then, Federer could create impossible angles and seemingly innocuous but devastatingly accurate winners with that golden backhand. However, Nadal’s game changed that. Once his backhand was exposed, he was vulnerable. This led to every Federer’s fan worst nightmare – the 2008 Wimbledon final. What followed was worse. The strategy of repeatedly attacking his backhand was working. And every player was employing this trick. Federer was also mentally unsure of his backhand, and at such a level, a slight dip in confidence can cause disasters. Just look at Djokovic today.
If you look at his personal life, the 2012-2016 period was touching. Another set of twins, twice the amount of joy. Predictions were made for Wimbledon 2030 when the Federer army would take over the tennis world by storm. He was a complete man. Satisfied at home, he took the bold decision to take 6 months off. This is the first time Roger has ever taken a long break in his 18-year-old career. And this is where people fail to appreciate longevity. He has played his game across three decades now, yet he has faced only two major injuries, both not career threatening. In fact, one of them occurred when he was giving his twins a bath. Maintaining peak fitness all through your career is impossible. But then, so is Roger Federer. He treated his body like a temple, he took extreme care of it, his game allowed him to not put too much strain on his joints. A player like Sachin Tendulkar is great not because of the runs he has scored, but because he had been on the field for 24 years, and suffered only a tennis elbow and a webbing tear. Such dedication to oneself and the desire to continue to keep playing is what makes them truly great. So it is disheartening to see Federer’s victory discounted because his opponent was injured. He won because his two rivals were also injured. I beg to differ – not succumbing to injury is also a part of sport, and those who have sustained are the real victors.
We don’t know what happened in those six months. An ageing body needed that rest. The Australian Open was nothing short of miraculous. Both the finalists were pleasant surprises. A classic rivalry – this era’s greatest – was rekindled. In an epic final, the single handed backhand came through. And that was the first bite. After four and a half years, Roger Federer beat Rafael Nadal to win his 18th Grand Slam title. The long gap from his last slam, the difficulty of the opponent, his age, and the evenly balanced match right till the last set, all of this made the Australian Open victory sweet. Roger Federer was back.
Fast forward to Wimbledon. Federer starts as the favorite, owing to his recent form. His game and strategy appear clear – get the minimum one break required per set, and don’t break a sweat. It was as if he wasn’t even trying hard. Gettable balls were let go – it looked like he was saving his energy for the coming rounds. And if the set went to a tiebreak, he would suddenly switch from 1st gear to 4th and destroy his opponent. Stan Wawrinka exited in the first round. Rafael Nadal sadly couldn’t break his jinx and get past the 4th round. Andy Murray was vanquished by the giant killer. Novak Djokovic had to retire after a set down. What could go wrong for Federer?
Everything. His opponents after the 4th round were all giant servers. Getting to break point itself was a task with these players. The only way to get past them would be attacking them mentally, exactly what happened to him. If their one strength would appear weak, the game was his. The first serves unplayable. The second was an opportunity. Roger skipped forward, well into the baseline to receive the second serve on the rise, and almost smashed it back into his court. The opponent would be caught off guard. This would mentally make him nervous about his service, and this is exactly what happened. Also, Federer’s first serve percentage was more than 65%, and he volleyed more often, killing the rallies well before the opponent could react.
Since 2003, the courts have been slowed. Racquet technology has encouraged power hitting. Defensive baseline tennis has flourished. The art of volleying has been dying. Controversial bathroom breaks were introduced. The balls have been made heavier. So no, this Wimbledon was not Federer’s to lose. It came riding on the back of a hard fought, painstaking effort which began in 2012. A shift in mindset, an adaptation to the new style of hitting, and pure love for the game. This Wimbledon was as sweet, if not more than the AO. It is, after all, his favorite tournament.
His favorite surface is due next month. US Open? #Just20It.