What a Match, What a Man!!

Julian JohnsonCorrespondent IJune 7, 2009

PARIS - JUNE 07:  Roger Federer of Switzerland lifts the trophy as he celebrates victory during the Men's Singles Final match against Robin Soderling of Sweden on day fifteen of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 7, 2009 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Like a prayer, like Jimmy Hendrix kneeling over his instrument with lighter fluid and match, this was no mere Grand Slam final. This was a spectacle, an exorcism, a coronation. Definitely maybe.

Could he, would he? None knew, but all were riveted. When Rafa came undone, the pressure and intensity mounted but so did the hope. It is rare to have an athlete so outstanding and dominant who also engenders such global support.

With others' reigns, the chorus of catcalls for a new leader, for a new flavor have resounded. Not so under King Roger.

When I turned on the TV, Federer was already up a couple of breaks. He was striking the ball with an authority I hadn't seen in the last several matches. It was Fed close to the finish line, Fed unleashed.

It was only a month and some change ago that I was convinced that he was done, toast, that he was too hardheaded to grow, to adapt. How wrong I was and happily.

He really is Ali, after the exile, not the Ali who in his prime pummeled his opponents into submission and rarely went the distance, but the one who, as he aged, was bloodied and had to learn to stand and fight.

Nobody knelt before Federer's image this tournament and genuflected, wilting at the sound of his name. No, Sunday punches were thrown by all and sundry and he was on the ropes. A lot. 

And guess what? I and perhaps, we found out that Fed could stand and fight, that he could take a punch, take the extra pressure that Nadal's defeat thrust on him.

This was no mere tennis match but a spiritual experience, one that I imagine many experienced just the same.

Here was grace under fire. Here were severe jitters on the threshold of a great event, a marriage, a birth, a reunion, a graduation. Here was a moment that gave anxiety, joy, and a powerful example of perseverance.

Roger Federer graduated from an enormously talented, record breaking tennis player to something more in my eyes, something more compelling.

Here was a stubborn man, yes, and I criticized him for it harshly. But it was his stubbornness that saw him through, drove him harder, deeper. Higher. I was wrong.

Ali once told Frazier when he invaded his boxing camp that "you'll see all that your eyes will allow you to see." Mine eyes were unable to see all that Federer was made of.

The iron in him that saw him through today is what makes him one of the greatest athletes bar none that I've ever seen along with Jordan and Ali.

What a match, what a man!