For the first time in years, I sat through an entire tennis match – two matches actually- and loved it. As a rabid Roger Federer fan who hopes that the Maestro can make it 18 and 8, I tuned in early to Breakfast at Wimbledon on NBC and was glued to the set for the next five hours.
The Djokovic – Gasquet match was of only passing interest to most tennis fans, even if those who are not followers of Federer. With Gasquet’s dismal record against the Big Four, I don’t think anyone gave him much of a chance against Djokovic. Never having him seen him play before, I was curious about the man who had beaten Stan Wawrinka in the quarters. He started inauspiciously and was broken early but clawed back to play Djokovic even for most of the first set . Then at 4-4, he muffed a routine overhead that might have led to a break point and never again threatened. He played some lovely flowing backhands but was always under pressure to hold his serve as Novak ran out the match in straight sets. To be frank, I was left wondering how Gasquet beat Wawrinka in his previous match; it must not have been the same Wawrinka we saw in the final at Roland Garros. I thought Djokovic played well but not spectacularly so. Perhaps he was playing to the level of his opposition.
The second match between Federer and Murray was all that one could ask for in terms of the quality of the tennis. Federer served superbly, attacked relentlessly and moved about the court with his customary fluid grace. Murray matched him shot for shot and uncorked some lovely lobs and passing shots. Both men were going for the lines, running down each others best shots and gradually the rallies lengthened. This was lawn tennis at it’s best, the rapid fire serve and volleying so much more enjoyable than the interminable baseline rallies on clay courts. Curiously, in each of the three sets, Murray held his own for the most part only to be broken late. However, I give him a lot of credit for his fighting spirit , particularly the manner in which he staved off five break points in a single game to hold serve and even the score at 5-5 in the second set. I was concerned that Federer might be disheartened by the chances he had squandered but I need not have worried. Federer said after the match that at this point he was screaming at himself inside but you would never know it from looking at him. He won his next service game at love and immediately broke Murray to go up two sets to none. Murray seemed to come unglued in the middle of the second set, talking to himself and pumping himself up– something he had not done earlier. After the second set, one got the feeling that Federer would not be denied. Murray fought to the end but Federer ruthlessly closed out the match in three hard won sets.
What we saw today was the vintage Roger Federer. It was difficult to believe that he is 33 years old, soon to be 34.There were two points he played today that were absolutely breathtaking. Late in the first set, Murray had him on the run, jerking him from side to side with sharply angled shots. Fed somehow ran them down and got them back. Murray then unleashed a wicked forehand deep to Roger’s forehand only to see him reach it at full stretch and whip a crosscourt forehand that left Murray standing. Even more delectable was a deft backhand he played towards the end of the second set, a wristy last-second flick which went almost parallel to the net and which Murray could only watch in despair.
Sports writers will no doubt remark about the excellence of Federer’s service game today. He got almost three quarters of his first serves in, rifled twenty aces and had Murray on the back foot all day. That he faced only one break point in the entire match is a telling statistic. Whenever he was in trouble, it seemed he was able to reach back and slam another ace. As great as Roger’s serve was, I was equally impressed by his return of serve particularly as the match wore on. Murray served well, his serves usually in the low 120’s and sometimes even 130 or 131; yet, Roger returned them with ease, hitting them early on the rise and giving Murray no respite. All in all , it was a masterly performance.
Based on today’s performances, Federer would have to be the favorite in Sunday’s final against Novak Djokovic. Novak did not look nearly as impressive against a lesser player as Federer did against the third seed who was playing in front of his home town crowd. But so slim is the difference between these players that on a given day either one can win.
Federer having made the final, a good friend e-mailed me that he is OK even if Fed doesn’t win on Sunday. I agreed with him but, inside , I was thinking what a shame it would be if that happened … making the final and then losing in probably Federer’s last chance at a major. Surely, the tennis gods would not be that cruel.