When the chroniclers of 21st century tennis write the tale of Roger Federer, they will thank their lucky stars.
Rarely has the talent and character of a man been so universally admired while still at the height of his powers.
Rarely have the twists and turns of a story so captured the imagination of sports fans and public alike.
And rarely has a drama flowed like a carefully crafted screenplay to such a perfect denouement.
When one of the greatest athletes of his age finally won the last elusive crown in his sport, the Coupe des Mousquetaires, it seemed that the world heaved a unanimous sigh of satisfaction. They had, appropriately, all been for “the one Federer” and he, in return, had given his all for them.
This thrilling journey began on the emerald turf of London in 2003, and Federer appeared destined, as the years rolled on, to take all records in this stride. He was unassailable at the top of the rankings for an unbroken 237 weeks, and the Grand Slam record was scheduled to fall in 2008.
But this story was strewn with enough twists to keep the pulses racing. No one could have foreseen the dramatic turn of events that snatched the No.1 position and the Grand Slam record out of Federer’s hands.
Hit by illness and pursued by a clutch of stunning players who had painted a bullseye between his shoulders, he failed in Melbourne, collapsed in Paris, and was bled dry at Wimbledon.
Federer, though, is no ordinary champion. He won an unexpected doubles gold at the Olympics and then wiped the floor with the opposition to take his only Grand Slam of the year at Flushing Meadows.
Needing just one more major to match the all-time record, the path took another twist. Federer fell victim to injury, and struggled, in the first months of 2009, to assert his authority over the chasing pack on the hard courts of spring. The naysayers once more began to write him off.
The extra determination that these challenges sparked was clear in a last-minute decision to play Monte Carlo and, as the clay court season advanced, the world watched a refreshed Federer game emerge and the old Federer fitness re-emerge.
New shots started to appear. A wide kick serve helped to expose his opponent to a follow-up volley winner. The drop shot—especially an off-forehand drop caressed across the net and wide to the side line—reminded everyone of the exquisite touch this man possesses.
A rejuvenated backhand added to the armory, its elegance disguising both rapier-like speed down the line and skimming slice across court.
Tactically, of course, all these changes were designed to penetrate the game of chief foe, Rafael Nadal—which they duly did in taking the Madrid Masters title.
With the evolving game came an evolution in the look and feel of Federer the man, as well. His hair was cropped to reveal deeper angles in a maturing face, and his body language revealed a new urgency in his match-play.
That urgency brought with it more frequent errors on the famous forehand. Emotions, usually suppressed until victory, hinted at an extra intensity, and the Federer roar became a staple photo opportunity for the former Mr. Cool.
The Federer journey towards Grand Slam victory started to become headline news. Could this Hercules of tennis weave all the evolving strands together in time to overcome the multi-headed hydra of the men’s surging tour at Roland Garros?
Then the Red Sea of French clay opened up, and gave Federer a tantalising glimpse of the Coupe des Mousquetaires filled to brimming with the sustaining milk of reputation and the uplifting honey of success.
His path towards the “promised land” contained fewer obstacles with every step along its rapidly-drying course.
The hand of God appeared to be offering Federer his rightful prize at last: the missing link in the golden chain of tennis greatness. With the French trophy, he could claim his seat alongside the greatest of all time.
And how impeccable would be the timing of this long-sought victory.
Titles lost, one by one, to the young pretenders.
Age, marriage and fatherhood thrown in his face with doom-laden predictions by media and commentators.
His armor of invincibility pierced by illness and then injury.
Shakespeare himself could not have penned a more perfect plot.
Even here, the Federer path was strewn with hazards, and matches were almost lost to Jose Acasuso, to Tommy Haas, and to Juan Martin Del Potro. So by the final act, the world had entirely fallen under the spell of the battling hero.
But perhaps the greatest burden Federer carried towards that closing scene was the record book.
He had already ticked off his 20th Grand Slam semifinal in a row and his 19th final (equalling Ivan Lendl’s record).
Here, he was aiming to equal Pete Sampras’ 14 Grand Slams and to become only the sixth man to win all four Slams. No other player had ever achieved both.
So weighed down by history, expectation, the ticking clock, and the chasing pack, Federer had just one foe to cut down.
Robin Soderling posed a daunting and unexpected danger. Equipped with massive serve and ground strokes, and buoyed up by a remoulded attitude learned from new coach Magnus Norman, Soderling had already shocked some of the biggest players in the game.
And his greatest asset, facing Federer, was fearlessness. He had no more to prove, nothing to lose.
What Soderling could not have predicted was that Federer would turn up to this final with his best tennis since beating Andy Murray in the U.S. Open. He played a match of such quality and consistency, no-one could have denied him. It was the most fitting tennis for the ultimate reward.
So as those scribes write the story of tennis, the biggest and most illustrious chapter will be devoted to Federer.
Loved by fans, admired by fellow players, respected both for his decency and his brilliance, he can now legitimately claim his place amongst the greatest tennis players of all time.
There are few who would wish it any other way.
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