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Tuesday, 8 July 2008

'That' Unforgettable Sunday

Great players - and Roger Federer is unarguably that - are best judged by whom they have to fight for major titles. Federer might have won more grand slam titles if a certain Rafael Nadal did not exist - and he would almost certainly be a French Open champion by now after making the final three years in succession - but he would probably not be quite as good a tennis player. Nadal has made Federer a better player and vice-versa.


Roger Federer does not own the Centre Court of SW19. Nobody does, nobody ever has. The most singular arena in sport does not go in for being owned, rather it will lend itself on a complex lease-hire system and is always ready to foreclose at the cruellest and least convenient moment. The court will let people have a taste of ownership, but then it will kick them out on to the street without a moment of remorse. It is an arena that dotes on its favourites and is generous and sporting to everybody else, but it is also the cruellest arena in sport. Those whom the place loves best end up suffering the most.


Which man has ever had a better right to call himself owner of Centre Court than Bjorn Borg? He won 41 successive matches at Wimbledon, the bulk of them on Centre. But in the end, when love was at its highest, the supreme court turned against him. Not the people, only the place itself, allowing a foul-mouthed interloper called John McEnroe to beat him. The one thing you can never do with Centre Court is to take it for granted.

Home matters. It is an atavistic thing. Everything to do with territory is about breeding and feeding. And it is a fact throughout nature that the holder of the territory has a considerable advantage over the invader, not only because he knows the place but also because being at home gives him strength. There is a species of fish for whom the mere fact of being at home makes it the certain winner of every fight over every invader. Other species are less clear-cut and I suspect that tennis players are among them. But Federer has as much claim to ownership of this court as Borg. The question remaining is whether or not he can take the step that was beyond Borg.

Sports psychologists make a big thing of the idea of making friends with the place of competition. They tell you to get the arena on your side. You will see competitors in all sports walking aimlessly about, idly playing with a ball, or just sitting about. Some do mental exercises, visualising themselves winning, others just absorb the vibes, telling themselves that they like the place, that the place likes them. Everybody just wants to feel at home - that's the crucial thing.

But Centre Court is always capricious. Sometimes it seems not so much like a court as a courtesan - beautiful, generous, but always capable of withdrawing her favours for no apparent reason, just because she happens to feel like it, or more usually, because she has a thing for a younger man.

The wresting of Centre Court from Borg was the biggest happening in men's tennis in the Open era. Now, more than a quarter of a century later, we have another great champion fighting to keep his ownership of the greatest arena in sport. It is Federer's place and so Federer has the edge, at least to start with. But you presume on Centre Court at your peril. In the end, it always eats the ones it loves the best.

It’s hard to play Rafael Nadal. It’s also hard to play Bjorn Borg at his peak, when the old warrior was making his myths with his wooden excalibur. Hard to play either of them, close to impossible to play them both at the same time, and yet that’s what Roger Federer was forced to do on D-day. And in the end, it was too much for him.

It was Nadal’s day, or rather, Nadal’s night; an epic of shifting fortunes and alternating advantage, a match that came down, in the end, to a question of will. And Nadal was the stronger, if not by much. The champion who has everything was edged out by the challenger who did not know his place, who simply would not stop challenging.

Nadal was playing with the forces of youth and change and revolution to power him on. Borg, his ally, was admittedly doing little more than watching, but he was still playing with the forces of history and the unchangeable facts of the past. It was a devastating combination and Federer, as keenly aware of the pressure of his younger rival as he is of the weight of history, was almost torn in half.

Nadal loves to put pressure on his opponent, with his miraculous movement and his ability to reach impossible balls time after time. He doesn’t just put them back in play, either: he hits deep, testing and accurate shots from impossible places. As for Borg, he won five Wimbledons on the trot and the thought of beating this record had eaten far too deep into Federer’s cool.

Half the people have been saying that Federer has been struggling all year and will struggle at Wimbledon; the other half have been saying Federer will find the old magic at Wimbledon because he’s one of the greatest players to step on Centre Court. Yesterday’s final proved beyond question that both sides were right, but the first half were righter.

Federer had won five Wimbledons on the trot, and that’s why he stumbled at the sixth. His comeback from humiliation was as great a miracle as any he has achieved in his charmed tennis life, but it was Nadal’s day. Federer played poorly to begin with and looked ill at ease, less than the serene self we know. But, oddly, this does not inhibit him. He came back with a series of remarkable points to hold serve and then came the black clouds and the rain that might have been a part of Federer’s usual Wimbledon luck. He took a break, had a bit of a think and hoped the delay might put a tiny bit of a kink in Nadal’s rhythm. He came out a man renewed.

Federer had been uncharacteristically error-prone in the first session and Nadal had been eating his loose shots in a feeding frenzy, rattling up a two-sets-to-love lead. But after the rain, he staged one of the great Centre Court fightbacks. First one set was grappled back and then in the fourth, Nadal had two separate championship points. But in an uncannily brilliant passage of play, Nadal played superbly while Federer rose a notch higher.

It might have been a humiliation. He waited until he was two sets and love-40 down before he really got into the match, which might be seen as leaving it a little late. The problem with all players who have touched greatness is that they don’t accept reality very easily, not when that reality involves defeat. He did not go easily, and not without touching the miraculous. But in the end, he went.

Rare, rare times: when two great players both play their best at the same time. At this ineffable level of sport, it’s time to pack away the superlatives and just give thanks for bloody sport; for these daft games we watch that produce such extraordinary things and bring us such extraordinary people.

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