Sunday, 29 January 2017

Is Federer the Greatest of All Time? The forehand winner that settled the issue once and for all...

Federer is at the far end:

I missed the match on television. Deliberately...

...because I simply couldn't face the emotional wear and tear of yet another epic battle between the greatest tennis player of all time and  greatest tennis match-player of all time. And there is a difference. Federer is the most naturally gifted player I've ever seen - in any sport. He doesn't have the game's best backhand, forehand, volley, chip or overhead. He isn't the fastest mover on the tour, and he isn't the best strategist. His serve is right up there, of course, but it's not quite as effective as Sampras's or as fearsome as, say, Raonic's. But what he has done for the past fifteen years, again and again, is regularly to unleash shots which are either impossible, or so surprising that the possibility of playing such a shot wouldn't even have occurred to any other player (apart, perhaps, from Murray at his very best). Federer is a genius, and it's that, together with the sheer balletic beauty of his exquisitely-balanced movement and the sheer classical perfection of his strokes that make him such a constant delight to watch.
The difference between genius and match-winning prowess is that geniuses often lose matches they should really have won, while match-winners never lose matches they should have won. Nadal has always made the very best use of what talent he possesses: Federer has often squandered winning hands against players he should have beaten (especially Nadal) - while Nadal has always been beaten by players who deserved to win against him.

Naturally, I watched a recording of the match (which I had assumed Federer - for years Nadal's "rabbit", just as Nadal became Djokjovic's "rabbit" - would lose). But he didn't - and, as far as any one moment can decide a match, it was the 26-stroke rally with which I kicked off this post - and it was the final unexpectedly vicious forehand winner down the line which signalled the moment when Federer threw off the psychological burden of all those painful grand slam losses to his less talented rival, and it was the shot which once and for all settled the GOAT question. (Aided, admittedly, by a fast court and by the fact that his one-handed backhand, which Nadal exploited for years by peppering it with awkward, high-looping topspin shots, has become almost as effective as his legendary forehand.)

Fittingly, the man who handed Federer his fifth Australian Open trophy was Rod Laver, the only other serious contender for the title of GOAT. Just imagine a match between the two of them at the height of their powers on a blisteringly fast Wimbledon Centre Court, both using the same racket (modern or wood - I don't care). One of the many satisfying aspects of Federer's late-career win - and the fact that, with 18 slams to his name, he's probably edged too far ahead of Nadal and Djokovic to ever be caught - is that he evidently loves the sport and reveres its history. As Robert Skidelsky pointed out in his excellent book, Federer and Me (which I wrote about here) Nadal and Djokovic seem to have next to no appreciation of tennis history: their playing style is entirely modern, and they never mention any of the great players of the past. In fact, they give no indication of being particularly interested in the sport of tennis! Federer wouldn't have looked out of place in long trousers unleashing elegant backhands and zipping forehands at Monte in the '30s, whereas there's something utterly a-historic about his Serbian and Spanish rivals. What a relief that it's the charming Swiss maestro who has ended up as the undeniable Greatest of All Time.
The Tory victory of 2015, 2016's Brexit vote, the defeat of Hillary Clinton, and Andy Murray reaching No.1 - and now Federer winning an unassailable 18th grand slam title against his greatest rival. Who could ask for anything more?

No comments:

Post a Comment