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Tennis: Federer not yet ready to vacate the throne

John McEnroe is convinced Roger Federer, 30 in August, will win another grand slam, but not this Wimbledon. He reckons the 125th edition of the tournament is Rafa Nadal's to lose. That judgment sits alongside a thousand other opinions, most of which are split between these two pillars of the game, but McEnroe, the three-time former champion on this grass, whose perceptions are not dulled by the years, leans slightly towards the Spaniard.

Federer, of course, thinks he will be crowned gentlemen's singles champion for the seventh time on July 3, equalling the record of Pete Sampras, whom he beat here in the quarter-finals 10 years ago -- the genesis of his own rise and the beginning of the American's retreat -- although he would win a final major, the US Open, before he left.

Nadal? He never predicts. He just makes life hell for everyone else until they collapse on the end of the most withering, iron-fisted forehand in the sport, something he has done to the Swiss six times in eight slam finals, most recently in Paris last month.

So the maths, recent evidence and history would seem to be with Nadal and McEnroe. And, if anything is designed to inspire Federer to the mountainous peaks he has reached so many times, it is not only the burning desire to beat Nadal in a championship final but the creeping suspicion of others that he is approaching the closing stages of an illustrious career.

In many ways, with some obvious differences, his career mirrors that of Sampras. Both appear to share a sanguine temperament and fierce, quiet determination, but Federer's ambitions are stronger now than when he was young and, occasionally, lazy, whereas the American blazed from the beginning then headed for the exit in haste, his enthusiasm drained after so long at the top. The American also felt that he was never afforded the acclaim in his own country that his excellence deserved; Federer, whose international reach is more obvious, suffers no such pains of ego.

"I don't see any signs [of decline] other than that his life has become more complete and complicated with kids," observes McEnroe. "His enthusiasm is more than Pete's. Pete seemed like a reluctant champion to some degree. It seemed like he didn't like being out there as much as Roger."

And, if you take Federer at his word, that is true. He bridles at any suggestion about even a minor dip in his tennis or commitment, and said yesterday: "I feel good about myself, about my body. The last week was vital for me to recover from my groin injury. I feel like I'm almost back at 100 per cent again, which is a really good sign for Wimbledon."

And what of equalling Sampras' record? "There's always something on the line at this point when I play the grand slams just because I have the record already [of 16 majors]. So I could push it one forward or I could tie with Sampras here. It's obviously something very special and important at this point."

And that groin injury -- that is a tiny mystery. Immediately after the final at Roland Garros, Federer said he had not felt so good physically for a while. He said, yes, he intended to play on the grass of Halle in Germany, in preparation for Wimbledon, although he would have to consult his team. The following day, he withdrew, citing the groin injury.

There were a couple of other post-defeat statements in Paris that not only betrayed Federer's deep disappointment in finishing an otherwise good tournament a loser yet again to Nadal, but suggested he was struggling to rationalise the reasons for his defeat.

"It's always me who's going to dictate play and decide how the outcome is going to be," he said. "If I play well, I will most likely win in the score or beat him; if I'm not playing so well, that's when he wins."

It was not the most gracious loser's speech, although you could see the way he was thinking. He figured then, and still does, that Nadal grinds him down with attritional power, whereas he takes all the risks.

"I'm the one that's playing with smaller margins," he said. "So, obviously I'm always going to go through a bit more up and downs; whereas Rafa is content doing the one thing for the entire time."

This rivalry is unlike any other in sport. It is not just a series of contests between probably the two best players in the history of their sport; it is a subtle psychological war. Nadal is transparent. That is partly because his English is not his first language. It also because he shares with Andy Murray the gift, or curse, of being unable to give an answer not wrapped with an iron chain to the truth.

Federer is equally candid -- but clever with it. He would not be so brazen as to declare himself the best player of all time, although he probably believes it, certainly on grass, certainly at Wimbledon. This is his turf. To lose here -- as he did in that majestic final against Nadal in 2008 -- is a wounding blow.

So he crafts his verbal sparring with care. He knows how close he came to going out in the first round last year after five tough sets against the unseeded Colombian Alejandro Falla.

"I hope I get into the tournament a bit better than last year where I almost lost in the first round," he said. "That's the concern I have right now, not trying to break all these different records."

Novak Djokovic provided a measured judgment to the never-ending debate about who is the better of the two. "Obviously, results wise, it's still Federer," he said yesterday.

"But Nadal has been incredible the last couple of years. So, from that side, I think Nadal has maybe more years to play at the top of men's tennis. But you never know what's going to happen. They have the biggest rivalry, maybe the biggest rivalry ever."

And there's not a lot more anyone can add -- until, maybe, July 3.


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