More than any other player, Roger Federer has the capability to close out matches, even when he's not playing his best tennis. His aura is still intact.
Federer has proved this with his difficult win over the American, Mardy Fish, at the Masters 1000 event in Cincinnati. He was not playing the immaculate brand of tennis for which he was famed, missing backhands and uncharacteristically misfiring on his legendary forehand.
A straightforward victory was expected against his similarly aged opponent, who had played three more matches prior to the final, including a draining one in the blistering midday heat against Toronto conqueror, Andy Murray.
But Fish came off the blocks strong in the title match, holding both his serve throughout the first set and his nerve in the ensuing tie-break. In fact, his smooth, quick-actioned serve was the main reason he won the first set, getting him out of trouble, time and time again.
The American was playing inspired tennis. The present fatigue was cowering in the background.
In the second set, Fish held a breakpoint at 2-all, but missed on an attempted forehand winner—the best chance of securing his only break of the match and holding a few more service games to win the title. And the way he was serving, such a task would certainly have been within the realm of possibility.
He must have known that a straight sets win was his only option, because Federer will only get stronger if missed opportunities are not capitalized upon.
Rafael Nadal once said when referring to Hewitt, that if one gives him a finger he will take an arm. This applies even more to Federer.
Nerves may have been Fish's undoing in that game—nerves at coming close to breaking through the aura, through the intensity that has been the source of despair for so many in the past.
Fish eventually capitulated in the penultimate game. Mounting pressure from his opponent and increasing physical strain were the probable contributing factors in the eventual breakdown of the American's serve.
Federer squeaked through another tight match, his back against the wall through the first half of it, his mighty will sending electric vibes across the net that could envelop and sway. And there have been so many wins like this.
No other player has evoked such uncertainty and, yes, fear in his opponents.
Even the great Pete Sampras, in the years of his most flamboyant dominance, rarely demanded similar, total respect. One loss stands out: his defeat at the hands of the relatively unknown Dutchman, Richard Krajicek, in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 1996, during the height of Sampras's rein.
The emerging young guns of the game, such as Robin Soderling and Tomas Berdych, have been able to rock Federer back on his heels recently, their belief in overcoming the invincible presence enhanced by their brutal, hard-hitting games.
But even the big Czech, Berdych, was unable to close out Federer again in the Toronto Masters recently, just as Fish was unable to do the same in Cincinnati. Berdych was serving for the match, but just could not make it three in a row against the Swiss.
No one, except his left-handed nemesis, Nadal, has been able to accomplish this feat since Federer's rise to the top echelons of the sport.
Federer wanted to win; he wanted to show that his new coach was beneficial to him; he wanted revenge against the man who denied him a record-tying seventh Wimbledon title.
The intense fervor emanating from such self-belief was enough to both enhance Federer's level of play, and make his young rival pause long enough to get knocked off his pedestal.
His established rival, Novak Djokovic, also found himself in a similar predicament, holding three breakpoints at 5-all in the third set at the semifinal stage of the same event in Toronto.
One searing forehand winner to set up the last break point had the young Serb all but declaring himself the current No. 1. Two points later, he was smashing his racquet in disgust!
At the French Open last year, the German, Tommy Haas had a two-set lead against Federer, and a break point at 4-3 in third.
The Swiss then came up with an inside-out forehand winner on a decent return-of-serve by Haas, an instinctive shot that can only stem from an unmatched will to win. I knew it was over for the German after that, even at this early stage of Federer's comeback.
And one cannot forget how a young, unknown player called Alejandro Falla, was only two points away from arguably the biggest upset in tennis history in the first round at this year's Wimbledon, only to get crushed into the turf.
Federer has earned the right to win matches the way he has been winning some of them recently. His absolute dominance between the years 2004 and 2007 has earned him the right to be the intimidating presence that he is.
I once wrote a piece on his declining aura on the court, after losses over the past two years to players he had previously dominated. Some of his most recent wins have proved me wrong.
Federer has turned winning into an art, and no one has perfected it quite like him. From his comments before and after matches to get his "mojo" going, to his calm, calculated, cyborg-like demeanor on court, Federer's whole make-up is geared towards one thing: winning matches. He has been relentless at it, and will continue to be so.
I have been critical of some of his comments after losses and prior to important matches, sometimes overly so. I am realizing that these words, much like his natural game, are more instinctive than anything else, powered by an innate self-belief and absolute love of being the best.
Of two things I am quite certain: Federer will continue to be a force in tennis for some time to come, and the major events will now be even more enjoyable during this latter stage of his tenure.
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