If ever you needed proof that tennis is a more watchable and enjoyable game than cricket, then it was on abundant display when Roger Federer beat Andy Roddick to win his sixth Wimbledon and 15th Grand Slam title last Sunday. I watched every moment, riveted by the excitement but increasingly tense and nervous as the match see-sawed with the outcome, uncertain till the sudden final end.
However, beyond the gripping battle, last Sunday’s dual revealed a lot about the psychology of champions as well as the inexplicable ironies and paradoxes that lie imbedded in their performance. This added immeasurably to the contest with the commentators keeping you aware of these little details right through the match.
Both men were nervous — Federer anxious to regain the All England Championship and better Pete Sampras’s tally of 14 Grand Slams, Roddick desperate to win after losing two earlier finals to Federer in 2003 and 2004. Victory went to the man who controlled his anxiety and apprehension when it really counted. Trailing 2-6 in the tie-breaker of the second set, one point away from falling two sets behind, with four set points to fend off, I thought Federer was finished. But how wrong that sinking feeling was. Instead, he tapped hidden reserves of strength, while luck gifted him a couple of ace serves, to snatch the set from the jaws of an imminent defeat.
Both men fought on for three more tight sets — a grim, relentless, bitter struggle — till, in the end, luck decided the outcome. The final set lasted 95 minutes. When it ended, the score stood at 16-14, a marathon that created a record for any Grand Slam final.
For 29 games it could have gone either way till, in the 30th, fate decided against Roddick. Two surprise unforced errors by Roddick in his own service game gave Federer a single championship point. It was enough. As Roddick’s mis-hit forehand shot into space, Federer jumped high into the air shouting out his joy.
In defeat, Roddick was more graceful than any losing finalist I’ve seen. There’s a lesson here for our cricketers. They lose as often but as yet they’ve never shown the same sportsmanship. Federer was equally generous. “It was a crazy match with an unbelievable end,” he said. “And my head’s still spinning!”
Now turn to the ironies and paradoxes that emerged during this 4 hour and 16 minute contest. Roddick was the better server. But Federer served more aces — 50 in all. They played 77 games altogether. Federer lost his serve twice, in the first and fourth sets, but still won. Roddick held his for 37 games in a row but on the one occasion he lost it, he lost the match. Right through Federer was more error prone. He had 38 unforced errors to Roddick’s 33, 64 per cent successful first serves to Roddick’s 70 and could convert only one of seven break points to Roddick’s two of five. Of course, that solitary one was the one that counted.
But, is Federer the greatest tennis player of all time? That’s hard to say. He’s won more Grand Slams than any other and he’s done it when his rivals are tougher than ever before. But Rod Laver won four Grand Slams in a calendar year — and he did that twice, in 1962 in the pre-Open era and, again, in 1969 after turning professional. Forty years have passed and no one has done it again.