Today is a gift

by Ashish

At around the start of the third set, Roger Federer executed a sliced, cross-court inside-out forehand drop shot. I used up five words (seven if you ignore the hyphenations) to describe the shot without using a single one to praise it. Then again, I am incapable of praising something I can’t begin to understand.

It has been thus with Federer for about a decade now. His ability to conjure up shots that have not been in any coaching manual before or since, his ability to envision angles that are simply not visible to anybody else on or around the court and above all his uncanny gift of being able to combine these two abilities to produce magic has not waned with time. If anything, it seems to have become a little more refined.

In true Federer style, he shanked the next ball into the net – but that’s the price you pay for being a Federer fan. When you know what he is capable of, the unforced errors become all the more painful to watch.

It’s become easier with time, however – being a Federer fan, that is. Us acolytes no longer demand that he win every tournament he enters – in fact, if he does win a tournament, its a very pleasant experience to be savoured, not a nail biting torture session that lasts for five sets. These days, one is calm enough to actually recollect the the sliced, cross-court, inside-out forehand drop shots.

The man himself is a lot more relaxed these days, playing as he does without the crazy expectations that used to swirl around him all the time. Definitely the third  wheel on the juggernaut that the top three have become, he is rapidly becoming the sentimental favourite at every venue. He’s not quite reached Agassi levels sentimentality yet, but it’s only a matter of time. With the other two members of the top three troika, you expect them to be contesting each other in the final – in fact, they were my picks to be finalists at the start of this tournament. With Federer, you expect him to reach the semi-final, but then it’s a case of anticipating an aw-shucks match where he plays gallantly, but bows out to the one or the other.

But the old man wasn’t quite done, obviously. Not by a long shot. To take out Djokovic and Murray in back to back matches, and in so convincing a manner, is his way of clearing his throat and gently pointing out to the world the fact that the player with the most Grand Slams in the history of the game is still around, thank you very much. That these back-to-back take-downs also result in he owning a 17th Grand Slam, along with the regaining of top dog status, is just a very generous dollop of icing on what was already an obnoxiously large cake.

All of which is nice – very nice indeed – but it doesn’t quite possess the life and death breathlessness of years gone by. In these, the last few years of his career, Federer is still a potentially lethal competitor – but more than that, and most importantly, he is a guy who is simply enjoying playing a game he loves very much. More and more, it seems that this enjoyment is the defining feature of his play.

And to my mind, that was the difference between Federer and that glorious warrior on the other side of the court. Murray fought like a lion today, and that was his greatest asset and his weakest point. His urge, his painfully desperate desire to win both created and destroyed his game today. It created the unshakable resilience of the first one and a half sets, but it also created the ultimately heart-breaking pathos with which he played the last two sets.

Because you see, for Murray, winning was the thing today. He had to win at all costs. This monkey, of winning a Slam, has been on his back for about four years now, and its visibly eating him up. Murray was handicapped by this urge to make his bones, and that too in front of an adoring home crowd, which hardly helped matters.To his detriment, on the other side of the net was a player who was hell-bent on playing the best tennis he could – winning was a natural outcome.

Put another way, young Po took on Oogway today, and found out that although getting on in years, the Master was, all said and done, still the Master.