Tennis matches make you feel the English language has only two words—‘Come On’. The two contestants urge themselves to ‘come on’. Their coaches and wives, sitting at the courtside, shake fists and shout ‘come on!’ Banner writers are more imaginative. Yet, sometimes, they too only manage to tattoo, on placards or on national flags, ‘come on X’ or ‘come on Y’. You’d believe that even the clouds above the arena have formed so as to read ‘come on’.
Andy Murray fired four consecutive ‘come ons’ in the fifth game of the second set of Sunday’s Australian Open final against Roger Federer. But that was about the only thing he did consistently. Murray hung in there well enough, especially in the third set, but could not deliver the finishing blow. Statistics are overrated, as the great Federer himself said a couple of days ago. But they offer some clues. Murray, not as sharp and aggressive, hit 29 winners in the match. Federer’s lashing forehand and heavy backhand brought him 46 winners. Quite a few of them traveled at over 150 kmph. That is faster than most bowlers bowl. You can thus imagine Murray’s task. He not only had to get his racquet to these bullets but also return them in a controlled way many times over in a point.
But then Federer makes it hard to hit winners past him. He scrambles back to the centre of the court after each shot and clings to the baseline. The defence is almost as competent as the offence. Only Rafael Nadal’s high rising topspin could consistently eject him from his comfort zone. Others still remain at his mercy.
It seemed this Sunday might be Murray’s. Like Nadal, he has fire in the belly and has beaten Federer more times than he has lost to him. In fact, Murray still heads their head-to-head record. This was also his second Grand Slam final, making him less susceptible to nerves. He had had two days of rest.
What’s more, the two do not share the mutual respect that Federer and Nadal do. (That might change now. Early in the match, Federer had the class to applaud a Murray backhand pass on a crucial point. At the presentation ceremony, both were generous in their evaluation of the other). There was slight animus between the two that suggested a bruising duel and possibly a win for the compelling young scrapper from Scotland, who, when eight, survived a shooting spree at his school by hiding under a desk.
But Federer, who should be rechristened ‘Featherer’ for the grace of his game, did not allow Murray to sink his teeth into the match. Though Murray’s a fighter, the impregnability of Federer’s game from early on affected his body language. Often, he was found burying his head in a towel brought by ballboys (in pink uniforms and caps with ear flaps that made them look like kids in animal costumes).
Federer must now rank as the world’s most remarkable athlete along with Sachin Tendulkar. Few, if any, have their blend of achievement and qualities. Few tick so many distinct boxes. Few have their longevity. Sixteen Grand Slam titles is a stunning achievement.
One year ago during the presentation ceremony of the Australian Open, Federer was a broken man, reduced to tears by Nadal and the ordeal of making a speech in public soon after a humbling defeat. Now he is back in his throne. For you and me, this is the stuff of dreams. For Roger Federer, it’s just life.