This article is written by Rajnikanth - a sports fan and a tennis fanatic. He is on a personal mission to watch ATP events in every place possible :-) No points in guessing who his favourite player is. Rajni is a banker and is based in the middle east. You can reach Rajni on his email - firstname.lastname@example.org
1st Nov 2013, Bercy, France. Roger Federer, arguably the Greatest Tennis Player Of All Time was facing off against Juan Martin Del Potro in a crucial match – for the second time in 5 days.
Leading up to the match, Del Potro is in red hot form and for the sixth time in succession, since the French Open QF 2012, their on-court battle would go the distance! All these matches have been closely fought and filled with plenty of drama - including come from behind wins for Roger at Roland Garros (from 0-2) and at the Olympics, where Del Potro won the first set, lost the second in a tie break and was broken late in the third set (19-17) playing a three-setter over four and half hours. Such was the impact of that match that the Olympic Committee has reportedly decided from the next time they will have a tie breaker in the third set too!
When the two had faced off the previous Sunday (on the 27th of October in Basel, Switzerland) Roger had started quite well but he seemed tight and started making a lot of errors. One more record for Federer- of making it 12 years in a row at the ATP World Tour finals, equalling a feat achieved only by Ivan Lendl - was within sight, but there also was theoretically a chance that that may slip out of grasp. This was unfamiliar territory for the legend - the pressure of playing in front of his home crowd; of having the worst season since 2002, not a single title at any of the majors or ATP 1000 or even ATP 500 events; and still not having qualified for the ATP World Tour Final - where 3 of the 8 places were up for grabs and at least theoretically, three others could make it. Possibly all of this was playing on Roger's mind. Roger had also shown some anger at Basel against Vasek Pospisil the previous day and was getting upset at the drop of a towel - metaphorically speaking - much like he had done during his first loss to Juan Martin at Arthur Ashe 4 years earlier. After all, he too is human and is bound to react, show emotions, though there can be no match to the likes of John McEnroe, Andre Agassi or a Boris Becker. Like two of the three guys Roger idolized - Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras - Roger most times is in control of his emotions, at least on the court. Of course, he did cry and say “My God, this is killing me” when he lost to Rafael Nadal in the final of the Australian Open 2009. But that has been one of the rare moments when we have seen Roger show his emotions in public. This time though, Roger was so desperately seeking to win his 'Home Tournament' having won just one title at Halle (ATP 250) this year and not having made it to the finals of any of the four Grand Slams - making this his worst year since 2002. So, he was frustrated at his own mistakes and reacting with anger when he gave away ‘free points’ and the anger only led to a few more ‘free points’ being conceded. Del Potro went on to win in 3 hard-fought sets – 7-6, 2-6, 6-4.
Five days hence, at Bercy - even though he had booked a berth to London (Roger qualified after his second round win earlier in the tournament) - Roger must have still been hurting from that defeat. But then he showed no signs of that and was actually appeared to be using that to goad himself on to get the better of his opponent - seven years younger to him, and enjoying his best season since 2009.
Roger won the toss, opted to serve first, opened with an ACE and went on to hold serve on LOVE! As one who has keenly watched every match these two have played since the US Open 2009 - having stayed up until about 4 AM that night - I could sense right away that Roger was going to dominate this one. Roger won the first set 6-3 and seemed keen to win in straight sets. But Del Potro too was playing extremely well and broke Roger in the tenth game of the second set to level the match at 1-1. But Roger broke early in the third and went on to close out the match 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 in an hour and forty four minutes of top notch tennis.
In 2011, a year in which Roger did not win a single Grand Slam, he had finished strongly - winning at Basel (ATP 500), followed by Bercy (ATP 1000) and then at the O2, London (1,500 points) - where he had defeated Rafa 6-3, 6-0 in under an hour. In the run up to the Basel event, Roger had spoken about the importance of a somewhat similar finish this season. One can see that from his words and his actions - staying fit and playing as many tournaments as possible - yet, being on the wrong side of 30, his body taking longer to recuperate from tough five set matches as was evident during the Australian Open and the French Open this year makes it that much more difficult for Roger to compete against players 5, 6, or 7 years younger to him and at the peak of their own careers.
Del Potro had denied Roger a sixth (consecutive) title at the US Open, 2009 and has denied Roger a sixth title at Basel twice over - last year and last week! Of course, at the post match interview, he said he was privileged to be playing in the same era as and against Roger Federer. He is the nicest bloke you can come across in the sport of Tennis - some 75% of the fans of ‘The Big Four’ (including yours' truly) have expressed in a poll in 2012 that they'd root for Juan Martin if their favourite made an early exit in any tournament. But all that certainly sounds very nice off the court, not on it; not when you are looking for a win to finish the tournament and a so far lacklustre season strongly; when you are a legend who people have started to write off; when you have conquered almost everything and in the twilight zone of your career, still looking to succeed against a much younger lot that is nimble-footed, hungry for success, titles and in pursuit of glory.
‘(I) Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee…’ said Cassius Clay, more popularly known as Muhammad Ali - about his style in the ring. Well, on the Tennis Court, if someone can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, it is none other than Roger Federer! In Bercy, Roger showed quite a bit of that, as he served and volleyed regularly - a rarity even for a Roger Federer, since the courts and opponents style of play and tactics have made it a baseline slugfest even on grass courts including the famed Lawns of the AELTC.
To be able to serve and volley, one not only needs to be able to serve very well, but also for the tennis ball to travel at a certain speed and trajectory that would blunt the opponent’s ability to return deep, giving the opportunity to finish off points quicker, by attacking the net in the follow through after the serve. The court at Bercy was faster than the court at Basel - a fact that had been acknowledged by Roger in an interview ahead of the match. And that provided the perfect opportunity for Roger to serve and volley!
He served a half a dozen aces and though he got just 68% of his first serves in, won 83% of those, saved 2 out of 4 break points and won 4 of the 6 break points Del Potro offered. More importantly, his sliced backhand was very effective in the first set and attacking the net effectively, he won 14 points, missing just one! He drew Del Potro to the net every now and then only to fox him with terrific passing shots, leaving him unsure on what to expect from Roger and hence, what tactics to apply to counter that. In a nutshell, as one of the commentators said, Roger was using his Tennis Racquet like a Swiss Army Knife!
Suddenly, all was well in Roger land and his die-hard fans are roaring again, in anticipation of more magic from the Maestro! It would be nice if he can regain the title at London. Of course, that would mean having to beat the likes of Novak and Rafa! But then, Roger has done the impossible several times over the past dozen years. So, why not again? Just to prove to himself that the best is yet to come. To show that artistry can still get the better of the power game. To provide immense joy to his fans and even his detractors all over the world.
As the sparks are still there in Roger’s game - albeit a bit reduced - let us enjoy the fireworks this Diwali season and pray that it continues at least for a couple of more seasons to come. Let the road to Rio be paved with more silverware and witness more milestones!