Rob Houwing

Federer's Slams look secure

2011-07-06 09:05
Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing (File)
Rob Houwing

In the afterglow of Wimbledon 2011, people could not be blamed if they suspected Roger Federer’s time was up in terms of Grand Slam conquests ... more specifically, that he may struggle to add even one more to his personal quest to advance from 16 to 20 singles titles before he calls it a day.

Federer, who tellingly turns 30 in August, unexpectedly exited Wimbledon this year at the quarter-final stage, undone by crowd-pleasing Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga from the commanding position of a two-set lead.

I am not saying he would have gone all the way to the title or final in a particularly luminary field of candidates this year anyway, but I thought the Swiss machine had looked pretty much as imperious, commanding and precise as ever until his crash to earth – it may just be that a touch of highly unusual complacency invaded his play against Tsonga and he simply could not claw back as his opponent got his tail up more and more on the day.

His departure must have irked him much more than he let on publicly afterwards, yet as the dust settles over SW19 his position atop the all-time greats’ leaderboard for Grand Slams, curiously, remains more sturdy than ever, by my book.

And that is because of the manner in which Novak Djokovic genuinely announced himself as the next big thing, winning Wimbledon for the first time to nose his “Slams” tally up to three at the age of just over 24.

The Serb, so deservedly stationed at No 1 in the ATP rankings, shook the tennis world in the consummate manner by which he dismantled Rafael Nadal in the final, extending his run of 2011 triumphs over the Spaniard to five.

All this has proved a bit of a turn up for the books ... and it must quietly suit Federer down to the ground, even as he labours himself to advance off the “16” mark.

For there was a lengthy period, remember, when it seemed Nadal, some five years Federer’s junior at 25, was rip-roaringly on course to eclipse the latter’s record, especially as the Majorcan-born left-hander generally kept rubbing in his head-to-head supremacy between the two.
But Nadal, following the latest Wimbledon, stays six Slams adrift of Federer on 10 ... and that gap may be wider than it seems on paper, due to the arrival of Djokovic as a force to be reckoned with in the highest men’s echelons.

Although he is probably not petty or malicious enough to actively wish it, Federer will know comfortingly deep down that Djokovic is quite likely to severely put the brakes on Nadal’s march over the coming months and years. He has made some deep psychological inroads in their particular duel, hasn’t he?

In a sense, thus, these two – presently the one and two on the planet with Federer tucked in third – may keep “eliminating” each other in the battle to squeeze ahead of Federer’s unprecedented achievements.

Certainly if the most obvious veteran of the three can still nip in for another Grand Slam or two, he will become even harder to rein in: Federer, after all, remains blessed with good health and fitness and a terrific work ethic and appetite.

There may be occasions where dangerous customers just outside the blue-chip ranks, like Tsonga, upset the Djokovic/Nadal apple-carts at advanced stages of tournaments and Federer is thus in a stronger position to cunningly strike for another Slam, here and there.

Of the fairly recent icons of the men’s game, Andre Agassi is a good inspiration to Federer to keep the fires burning: the American won four Grand Slam titles after turning 29 and his eight, in total, came over an elongated, 12-year period – between 1992 and 2003.

Pete Sampras, meanwhile, still the nearest player to Federer (14 Slams) got his over the course of 13 admirably durable years: the Swiss has achieved all of his over just eight massively productive years between 2003 and 2010.

Before this year’s Wimbledon, there was talk of men’s tennis being dominated for some time to come to by a quartet of players, the extra element being the undoubtedly talented Andy Murray.

But after another wretched fall at a crucial hurdle at Wimbledon – trounced in the semis by Nadal after playing some cracking tennis at times in a victorious first set -- the three-time Slam finalist rather showed his emotional frailties once more, I thought.

When things begin to turn against him, Murray looks haplessly up to his entourage for inspiration; the Scot does not seem capable of mustering it very emphatically from within.

No, famous last words, perhaps, but short- to medium-term interest in men’s tennis is going to be centred very much around the fascinating, ongoing fortunes of Messrs Djokovic, Nadal and Federer.

Rob is Sport24's chief writer

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