Monday, July 06, 2009

True Grit

Roger Federer Toughs It Out for a Record-breaking 15th Slam
5-6, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14

When the going gets tough, the tough get trophies

I few weeks back I blogged about Jon L. Wertheim's book Strokes of Genius, which rightly lauded last year's five-set, four-hour and 48-minute Wimbledon Gentlemen's Final between Roger Federer and Raphael Nadal as the greatest tennis match ever played (at least in my lifetime), and took the author - an unabashed Federer fan - to task for questioning Federer's grit:
Everyone assumes Roger wins by virtue of his genius, artistry or genetically-gifted skill. Hey, you don't win 14 majors on every surface, 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals (2005 Wimbledon - 2007 U.S. Open), reach 20 consecutive semifinals, 19 total Grand Slam finals, and be World No. 1 for 5 years without having the grit to match your talent.

After watching Sunday's five-set, four-hour and 16-minute, 77-game final (the longest-ever Wimbledon final in terms of games) between would-be King-killer Andy Roddick and Roger Federer, I rest my case. Roger came through to win his 15th major (surpassing the record 14 he shared with Pete Sampras, who was on hand to see history being made) and 6th overall Wimbledon crown on a day when, by all rights, he probably shouldn't have; because, push come to shove, Federer has that very grit others lack and critics too often miss because (against anyone not named "Rafa") he makes it look so easy.

The point certainly wasn't lost on A-Rod. "He gets a lot of credit for a lot of things, but not for how many matches he kind of digs deep and toughs out," Roddick said afterwards. "He doesn't get a lot of credit for that because it looks easy to him a lot of the times. But he definitely stuck in there today."

  • Grit Point #1: Second set tie-break, Federer is already down a set and facing a 2-0 set deficit as Roddick serves with quadruple set-point, at 6-2. Roddick needs one more point to win the breaker. But Federer faces the Roddick serve and doesn't flinch, breaking back a point to make it 3-6 and then taking the next two points on his own serve to narrow the gap to 5-6. With his final set point, Roddick faults on his first serve, and on his second serve Roger gets it back and watches as Roddick bashes a backhand volley at the net wildly across court, to draw level at 6-all. Then another error from Roddick allows Federer to take the lead for the first time, 7-6. Now serving for the set, Federer serves it out, with Roddick to fluffing a return to give Roger the tie-break at 8-6 and even the match at 5-6, 7-6.

  • Grit Point #2: With everything to play for and still no sign of fatigue in his opponents supersonic (and still unbroken) serve, Federer hangs tough through the longest final frame in Wimbledon, a 95-minute, 30-game fifth set that's the game-tallying equivalent of playing seven sets, knowing that if he loses his serve against his unbreakable opponent, it's all over. With Roddick serving at 14-15, Federer takes the first two points to put Andy in the hole at 0-30. But Roddick rebounds to to take the next three and it looks like a another hold from the Unbreakable One. Then an errant return brings the game to deuce. Roddick goes ad up, then it's back to deuce again, then ad Federer. But as the London Times describes it, "'s not just an advantage; this is championship point." Roddick serves and Federer holds firm, sending a return back over the net that Roddick hits wildly at; As the Times concludes, "...he's powerful with that forehand but not accurate and it's Federer's title." Yes, in the 30th game Federer got a sniff, worked his way to the finish line, and pounced the moment Roddick gave him the opportunity to string together two points in a row against The Serve. He persevered.

Before the match, the experts agreed that Roddick - who entered the match with a lifetime 2-19 record, including two Wimbledon final losses, against Federer (no one has played more matches on tour against Roger than Andy) - needed to play the match of his life in order to have any chance of beating Roger. And he did just that. Firing rocket serves clocking in as high as 143 mph that no other human being on the planet should be able to return. In a serving groove that saw him hold serve until the final, 30th game, of the final, fifth set. And he still - inexplicably, unbelievably - lost. 7-5, 6-7 (6-8), 6-7 (5-7), 6-3, 14-16.

I'm no Roddick fan - I've always considered him a hot-headed one-trick pony with a serve but no verve, though I've always appreciated his work ethic (he's in my Never Say Quit Club along with Federer, Nadal, Leyton Hewitt, and, on the ladies' side, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova) - but he earned my respect on this crushing day in which he must surely be asking himself: What exactly do I have to do to beat this guy?

Maybe last year's Federer-Nadal final had greater, more dramatic volleys and shot-making, while this was more a boom-and-loom affair of big serves (Federer had a career-best 50 aces, Roddick surprisingly only 27), but the tension was just as great, if not greater. After all, in last year's final Federer was unable to break Nadal's serve the entire match - he had to win two tie-breaks to force that dramatic fifth set against his Spanish nemesis after falling behind two sets to nil. This time around, he was broken twice - in the final game of the first set to lose it 7-5, and in the fourth game of the fourth set which he dropped 6-3 - in a match against a guy who never loses his serve. It soon became apparent that the only way Federer could win would be to break Roddick because Wimbledon does not have a fifth set tie-breaker format; to win, you have to win by two games. It was a question of who would blink first as the pressure to hold and the fading sunlight made the tension palpable. And Roger hung in there, doing his part to hold serve - until "the moment" arrived.

And, believe it or not on a day in which there were only three breaks of serve (Roddick's two and Federer's in the final game) over the course of 77 games, Federer's loss of serve in that fourth set may have been a blessing in disguise. You see, in a tight match in which both servers are likely to hold their serves, it really matters who serves first. That person is always going to be ahead if, holding true to form, the two opponents are headed toward the inevitable tie-breaker. It puts pressure on the guy serving second to stay in the match. Roddick won the initial coin toss and served first in three of the first four sets. In the first set, Federer caved when he served at 5-6 to stay in the set and was broken the first time. In the second set he again had to serve to stay in the set at 5-6, but held to force the tie-break he eventually won. Because Federer only used one of his two allotted serves to serve out the second set tie-break, he got to serve first in the third set and it was Roddick who had to serve to stay in the set at 5-6 and force the third-set tie-break, which Roger won on his serve at 7-5. In the fourth set, it was once again Roddick serving first, but with Roger serving at 1-2, Roddick broke through for the second time to go up 3-1 then held his serve to go up 4-1. The pair traded holds after that with Roddick serving out the fourth set to take it 6-3. But it meant that finally Federer would serve first in the final set. Hence that 15-14 edge heading into the final game and the "moment."

Like Wimbledon 2007 and 2008, this Gentlemen's Final is yet another classic five-setter and yet again Roger Federer is right there in it until the last swing. No one except the critics said it would be easy.

Point by Point Recap:
Times Online: How It Happened
Guardian Online: Roger Federer v Andy Roddick - as it happened


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