Tennis: Federer adds injury to insult Berdych
IT IS something of a myth that great champions always go down with all guns blazing and a diehard performance worthy of Bruce Willis and Hollywood. More often, the truth is much more prosaic and disconcerting.
Roger Federer is as great a champion as tennis and indeed modern-day sport has ever seen -- his achievements will still litter the record books in 100 years' time -- but yesterday at Wimbledon he suddenly 'cracked', just as other great multiple winners have cracked. More often than not it happens in the blink of an eye in front of an unsuspecting and disbelieving throng unprepared for such an outcome.
Federer was also unprepared, if his untypical testy press conference is any guide, when he unveiled a hitherto unsuspected back problem and occasional pain in his right leg. Switzerland's finest is normally a fairly gracious loser, not that he's had much practice to be honest, but Tomas Berdych deserved a tad more credit than he got from the departing champion.
Perhaps it was just the bitter disappointment of the moment and the realisation that things might never quite be the same. Nobody doubts the injuries for a second but such niggles are part of sport, indeed they are absolutely fundamental to the equation that determines when a great warrior finally gets slain, when the next mountain to climb is just too high. Yesterday was that day. Federer, on his favourite surface and on the court he virtually owns, got outplayed and out-thought in four sets, in just over two-and-a-half hours.
When Federer lost here on Centre Court to Rafael Nadal in 2008, it was entirely different -- he simply came second in the greatest tennis match ever played. There was no sense of any capitulation and barely any sense of defeat -- both he and Nadal were Olympian in their talent and attitude and it felt like a shared triumph that evening. Yesterday, however, Federer got hammered from pillar to post by a totally fearless and inspired opponent who respected the man across the net, but not his reputation and the assumed pre-eminence we bestow upon him. We can all agree, that takes some bottle.
Berdych -- who lest we forget defeated Federer in Miami earlier this year and also won against the great man at the 2004 Athens Olympics -- marched onto Centre Court with a simple but effective game plan. A big but clever server, his other stinging offensive weapon was a sledgehammer forehand and his main defence was a scrambling backhand and a heart the size of his native Prague.
He refused to over-complicate matters and almost deliberately kept the tempo low in the first set, lest he ignite Federer's fury and genius.
After sneaking a break in the seventh game, Berdych took the first set in almost routine fashion -- talk about coming in under the radar.
Neither Federer nor a packed Centre Court knew what to make of it.
Federer quickly roused himself to take the second, as we suspected he would. 'Normal service resumed, nice try Tomas,' we muttered to ourselves between games. 'Note how the master can always move up a gear when he needs to,' we whispered.
But suddenly the earth tilted violently on its axis as we viewed the third set. Berdych, playing the best tennis of his life, tore into Federer and dismissed him 6-1 with an unstoppable broadside of winners that in retrospect mortally wounded the already ailing Federer, as they smashed home with shuddering impact. Breathtaking stuff.
In the fourth set, as Federer tried to inch back into the game, Berdych was as brave and as cool as you like. At 3-3 in the fourth, Berdych four times recovered from deuce on his own serve to steady the ship. The very next game he broke and he could almost touch victory. Ten minutes later, he was embracing it like a long-lost friend.
"It is disappointing to go out in the quarter-finals but he played solid and I could have gone out in the first round as well," said Federer afterwards. "It's been tough for me accepting I didn't play the way I thought I could. Last week my leg started hurting. I had a good rest over the weekend and felt good playing on Monday but then in the second week my back started hurting. Today I couldn't play the way I wanted."
Berdych didn't want to be drawn into a slanging match afterwards but did comment: "I don't know if he was just looking for an excuse, it happens to all of us. I think he was 100pc ready. I am very happy with my performance. I played really well."
A semi-finalist at the French Open last month and currently the world No 12, he is in the form of his life and on the cusp of childhood dreams. Federer has achieved all his dreams and much more; he should not begrudge Berdych his moment.