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The ultimate Swiss magician

The spell Roger Federer weaves around his victims is evident in the eventual result, writes Atul Sondhi.

india Updated: Nov 20, 2006 13:48 IST

The worst thing about Federer during his straight set demolition of James  Blake in the Masters Cup Final was not about his game.

It generally never is.

But it was about  two ugly looking yellow strips on his T-shirt, one on each side, just below his shoulders, which made it look like a bad counterfeit picked from some Janpath roadside stall.
 
However, a fashion mismatch for an otherwise, and almost always, immaculately dressed champion was never going to have a bearing on his game. A game that has been taken to newer and newer heights by the Swiss Master.
 
Eventually, he will tower over them all.  As a banner read at the season-ending championship in Shanghai, ''FedEx is the master of masters. 

After the Wimbledon scare when Nadal looked ominously close to dethroning him as number one, it has been Federer all the way. Nothing demonstrates this better than his tremendous show in the Masters Cup where he beat the challenge of Nalbandian, saved what looked like a certain defeat against Andy Roddick, battled to subdue his nemesis Rafael Nadal in straight sets in the semis, and then Blaked out James in the final.
 
The show in the final, where Blake got his first game after Federer had won seven, and second after Federer had won three more, shows the complete dominance of one of the greatest athletes of our time.

Blake, the vastly improved American who had allowed defending champion Nalbandian just five games in the semis, must have gone through the same gamut of negative emotions having been allowed just seven games, and one break, in a straight set mauling by the Champion player.
 
Backhand is considered the Achilles heal of many a tennis players. For most it is a defensive shot, an endeavour to keep the ball in play before a lethal forehand is unleashed to change the equation. At best it is a tool to gain territorial advantage. But then Federer is class apart. 
 
The Champion's backhand down-the-line rips through most defenses, leaving his hapless victims experience a disturbingly familiar mix of agony and helplessness. Just a single such stroke is enough to puncture the ego of many a pretenders to his throne. Too bad for the opposition's morale if it comes too early in the match. 
 
Except Nadal, and to some extent Nalbandian, the alleged 'Federer Foes' allow themselves to be pulverized by the pressure his backhand exerts. Their mind takes a spin and reasonable approach paves the way for some extreme manoeuvers. 

They become either unduly defensive, or overtly offensive -- both potentially suicidal approaches against Champion -- a terminator with otherwise cool demeanor and amiable persona.  
 
Not many people have been able to handle the pressure of playing Federer in the Final. The twin challenges -- of mastering the master and winning the title  -- have proved to be too much for his rivals. Indeed, winning 24 consecutive finals before Nalbandian broke the sequence in Masters Cup last year only goes on to prove that. 
 
As one commentator aptly described during the travails of Blake that the best day to beat Federer is certainly not a Sunday. The only player deaf to this is probably Rafa.

Federer must have been happy to face him on Saturday, as Nadal looks to be the only one undaunted by the prospects of a duel with the champion on a Sunday. Probably he was bit unlucky not to face Federer in the Masters final!
 
With the kind of form Federer is in, it looks impossible that the tide will reverse in near future. That is unless he gets injured, or by some destiny's design nerves suddenly cease to grip his opponents at critical moments, as Roddick must have discovered in the round robin in wasting three match points.

He was just one good serve away from beating the champ in a tie-break, and that very feeling must have frozen him in tracks.  
 
In last two years, Federer has lost just nine matches - a remarkable feat by any standards. Five of these losses have come to Rafael Nadal, and one each to Argentine Nalbandian, Russia's Marat Safin, Britain's Andy Murray and France's Richard Gasquet.
 
If the form the final of the Masters Cup is any indication, it is tough to conceive that the situation is likely to get any better. Rather, with Nadal's form dipping a little, one fears one will see a more dominant Federer the next year. And, in that case, certainly more subdued rivals.