Wednesday 20 September 2017

Tennis: Laver's potential heir standing tall on cusp of history

Ian Chadband

He swears that it is not important to him, shrugs that "if it happens, it happens" and insists that the only thing which matters now in his garlanded career is to have some fun. Yet by winning the Australian Open in such magisterial fashion, Roger Federer has encouraged the tantalising prospect of the impossible being possible in 2010.

The concept of winning all four slams in the same year for the first time since Rod Laver in 1969 has been considered little more than wishful daydreaming in recent years as the business end of the men's tour has grown ever more physically intense and competitive.

Even at his absolute peak in both 2006 and 2007, Federer could only win three of the quartet, with Rafa Nadal presiding over the Roland Garros clay like a gorgon. And when the Spaniard himself looked in line for a serious assault last year, he was incredulously assailed by Robin Soderling in Paris.

So this time last year, as Federer stood tearfully in the Rod Laver arena wailing "God, it's killing me", and scribes dutifully began marking the passing of an end of an era, it seemed unthinkable that the Swiss would be back in Melbourne with all his ambitions assuaged -- French Open champ, record Grand Slam winner and proud dad of twins -- and as the serene lord of everything he surveyed in the tennis world.

Pushed

"I feel like I'm being pushed a great deal by the new generation coming up," he mused. Yet, if it is possible, he seemed to pull away from them again in Melbourne, losing just two sets all fortnight and playing, by his own admission, "some of the best tennis of my life".

With Nikolay Davydenko dismissed, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga humiliated, Andy Murray reduced to blubbing here, Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro hamstrung by injuries and Novak Djokovic's spirit looking more fragile, why would Federer not gaze towards Paris, London and New York with unimpeachable confidence?

Today is the 50th anniversary of Laver's first major triumph over Neale Fraser at the Australian Championships in 1960, the first landmark in an unparalleled career which climaxed with his second calendar year Grand Slam, and the only one ever recorded in the Open era, in 1969.

Last year, the old master told me from his California home how, if anybody wanted to repeat tennis' ultimate feat in today's demanding era, they would probably need, just as he felt he did, "lady luck riding on their shoulders" and an aspirin bottle at their side to battle through all the physical trials (in Laver's case, a dodgy elbow).

But Laver looked at Federer and saw the one man who could still do it. "Roger's certainly got to be odds-on to pull off all four if he clicks at the right time through the tournaments. You've got to be fit for each one," he said. "It's very possible for him; but he has to have the desire." Take the fitness as read -- the way his graceful light-footed athleticism seems to protect him from injury is among Federer's most miraculous traits -- and now witness again the same old insatiable appetite. To those who thought he would get distracted by nappies, who's the daddy? "Not as hard as it seems," smiled Federer.

Before last year's Wimbledon, Laver said he felt the win in Paris after his eternal wait would trigger a release, a new freedom in Federer's game, and here was the proof. Trying a drop shot on match point? "You've got to be crazy to do that," said Federer. No, but sometimes you've got to indulge your own genius.

"I won't just put the entire calendar just around trying to win the calendar Grand Slam." So let everyone else obsess about the record books. The Grand Slam? Steffi Graf's Open era record of 22 individual slams? Margaret Court's all-time record of 24? They will be mere by-products of Federer determined to enjoy what he described as the "end of my career".

And is that end imminent? "I hope not any time soon," he smiled. The challengers keep falling, the records keep tumbling but the supreme champion stands ever taller, ever more content and ever more dangerous. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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