Tuesday 10 December 2019

Centre Court's most beloved not ready to bid farewell

Roger Federer of Switzerland waves while holding the runner-up's trophy after being defeated by Novak Djokovic of Serbia in their men's singles finals tennis match at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships
Roger Federer of Switzerland waves while holding the runner-up's trophy after being defeated by Novak Djokovic of Serbia in their men's singles finals tennis match at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships
An emotional Roger Federer leaves Centre Court after losing to Novak Djokovic

Oliver Brown

To be present for Roger Federer's act of defiance, fighting under a creeping evening shadow to become the first man for 64 years to win a Wimbledon final from championship point down, was to treasure every second.

It was reputedly a Wimbledon bus driver who heralded the experience of watching Federer on Centre Court as "near-religious", so mark this down as one for the evangelicals. His movement sinuous, his sweat imperceptible, he faced down Novak Djokovic displaying every last drop of the grace by which he has reimagined grasscourt tennis as a form of lawn ballet. Even in defeat, this was his cathedral.

There is a reason why the denizens of Roland Garros all but assume Swiss citizenship for a fortnight, and it is that Federer remains emblematic of an ideal. His is an aesthetic so elevated that his single-handed backhand could inspire an exhibition at the Tate. His is the strain of tennis that everybody wishes they could play, and that the entitled few investing in six-figure Wimbledon debentures pay to see played.

"A legend, a stud, and an icon," Pete Sampras calls him. For one more afternoon, the pleasure was all ours.

DASHING

The exacting sartorial standards at Wimbledon rather suit Federer, the dashing blade picked out against the green grass in spotless and unimpeachable white. Many have tried and failed to find a skeleton in his closet, but all they discover is an immaculately-pressed shirt. Even yesterday, his ineffable sense of style, drawing luxury endorsements like moths to a lantern, could be discerned from the details: the golden Challenge Cup symbol on the backs of his shoes, the sight of his twin daughters Myla and Charlene arriving in dresses patterned in the All England Club's green and purple.

One felt, from the ovations that greeted his every winner past Djokovic in that convulsive final hour, that a corner of these grounds would remain forever Swiss. All that was missing was the sound of cowbells.

It was akin to a valediction, a salute to Wimbledon's greatest champion irrespective of his failure to make that status official with a historic eighth triumph. But we should be cautious of sounding too many notes of farewell, for Federer plainly does not see it this way. "Thanks, guys," he said, very matter-of-fact, upon leaving the scene. "See you next year."

Sentiment might that he can indeed win again, but the cold truths of human ageing point inescapably to an attenuation of his powers. In three weeks' time he turns 33, older than any men's champion here in the Open era.

Elsewhere Federer finds that a tennis court is, indeed, no country for old men, with the concrete of Flushing Meadows and Melbourne having become the province of remorseless baseliners like Djokovic, and the clay of Paris the personal fiefdom of Nadal. But grass is ever receptive, it appears, to his supremely cultured craft. His Wimbledon victory in 2012 arose from a context of doubt, of intimations that his best had already passed, and yet here he was, two years further into the autumn of his career and again the headline act of a final of such compelling fluctuations that it was redolent of the great drama of 2008.

It was at moments like this that you could appreciate Wimbledon's rule of no play on the middle Sunday. Somehow, it confers a heightened grandeur upon the final Sunday, and how in this past decade of Federer's rule we have been spoilt for these. All of the finals worthy of being called great – those of 2007, 2008, 2009 and now 2014 – have had him at its heart. We had wondered aloud, and never more so than when he departed chastened from a second-round loss to Sergei Stakhovsky 12 months ago, whether the firsts veins of age had started to discolour that sheen of genius. Here he offered emphatic proof, thanks in part to an inspired collaboration with Stefan Edberg but more to his own cussedness, that those preternatural gifts never went away.

Federer has grown into a far better loser in that time, thanks to the mellowing effects of fatherhood, a department in which he has again demonstrated his customary distinction by siring two sets of twins. After succumbing to Nadal in five at the Australian Open in 2009, he was overcome by tears, treating the end of his domination at the slams like a personal bereavement.

But his maturing as a man has bred a more sanguine take. "I already have seven," he shrugged, having fallen short of adding a record eighth Wimbledon title to haul himself clear of Sampras and William Renshaw. "It's not like I need another one." He even spoke of his renaissance over these last two stirring weeks as a "stepping-stone to great things in the future." This was a day, however, to cherish the fact that he was still a part of our present. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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