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Steve Flink: Federer surpasses himself again for no. 7

7/8/2012 5:00:00 PM

WIMBLEDON—As Roger Federer fell to the ground euphorically following his four set, final round win over Andy Murray, it was impossible for me not to marvel again at his enduring greatness and a shot making genius and verve that probably no one in the history of his sport has ever equaled. Here he was, collecting a seventh singles crown on the Centre Court to tie Pete Sampras for the modern men’s record, securing a 17th Grand Slam title in the process, reminding all of us that when he is anywhere near the zenith of his game it is a joy to witness his craftsmanship and unimaginable creativity. Federer eclipsed Murray 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 to win here for the first time since 2009, ending an arduous nine tournament stretch at the majors when he had made it to only one final.

Not since the 2010 Australian Open—when he also ousted Murray in the championship match—had Federer been the victor on one of the four premier stages in his sport. Since that time, he had often seemed apprehensive in the latter stages of important contests, squandering a two sets to love lead in the Wimbledon quarterfinals a year ago against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and allowing a two set lead to get away from him against Novak Djokovic in the semifinals at the 2011 U.S. Open. Djokovic saved two match points in the fifth set of that showdown, just as he had done a year earlier on the same court in the identical round. Even earlier this year at the Australian Open, he did not exploit a one set lead against Rafael Nadal, bowing in a four set semifinal there.

Federer had suffered an awful lot of bruising setbacks over the past two-and-a-half years at the tournaments he values above all others. Yet somehow, despite all of the deep wounds he was forced to endure, regardless of the inner doubts brought on by those losses, Federer never really lost faith in himself. That is the largest lesson of his latest Wimbledon triumph, which was essentially a reaffirmation of his place as the greatest player in the storied history of tennis. In the ultimate analysis, no one believed in Roger Federer more than Roger Federer believed in himself, and it was his steadfastness, supreme dedication and professionalism that carried him to victory on the fabled Centre Court at the All England Club.

With this well-deserved win, Federer has now been victorious in seven of eight Wimbledon finals, and 17 of 24 major finals altogether. To put that in perspective, no man had ever appeared in eight Wimbledon finals, although Sampras was 7-0 in his title round appearances. Federer has reached far more Grand Slam tournament finals than anyone else has ever done. The No. 2 man in that category—Murray’s coach Ivan Lendl—made it to 19 “Big Four” finals. He simply keeps on keeping on, and seems far from ready to rest on his laurels. That is a considerable tribute to his durability, unwavering spirit and a deep well of self-conviction.

And yet, his victory over Murray was no facile feat. When the match commenced outdoors, Federer did not come out of the gates with his usual self-assuredness. In fact, he was exceedingly nervous, as was Murray to a lesser degree. Federer led 30-15 in the opening game of the match, but dropped three points in a row to lose his serve. At break point down, Federer tried to attack Murray’s defensive return with a forehand swing volley, but sent that shot long. Murray had the immediate break for 1-0, and held at 30 for 2-0. He was finding his range early, going for aggressive forehands whenever possible, looking to break down Federer’s backhand. Murray reached deuce on Federer’s serve in the third game, only to miss a backhand down the line. Federer held on for 1-2, then broke Murray in the fourth game. In a pattern that would be repeated many times over the four sets, Murray would build what looked like a comfortable lead on his serve, but would have inordinate difficulty holding.

At 2-1, Murray was ahead 40-15 and had three game points, but Federer seemed to cast aside his inhibitions, swinging much more freely off the forehand. At break point, he laced an inside-out forehand that Murray could not handle, and it was 2-2. Murray swiftly went to 0-30 on Federer’s serve in the fifth game, but Federer served his way out of it, holding for 3-2 after two deuces, closing out that game with a vicious kick second serve at 89 MPH that Murray found unmanageable. From the comfort of 2-0, Murray had lost three games in a row, despite all of his chances. Murray wasted another 40-15 lead in the sixth game, but held on from deuce to make it 3-3.

But Federer was flowing now. He held at 15, putting four of five first serves in play, swinging his slice serve with considerable accuracy to the Murray forehand, displaying growing confidence. And then Federer nearly put the set into his winning column. Murray was serving at 3-4, and twice he was down break point in that crucial game. Had Murray been broken, Federer would have had a chance to serve out the set, and the British player would have been deeply disillusioned. But here he competed with intensity, purpose and unmistakable grit and gumption. On the first break point against him, Murray connected with a 131 MPH first serve to Federer’s backhand, got the short return he wanted, and drilled an inside-out forehand with enough pace to draw an error from Federer. Behind break point for the second time, Murray was made to play a very tough low backhand volley, but he went down the line with remarkable feel and depth, forcing Federer to lob long.

Murray gamely and forthrightly held for 4-4, and Federer’s nerves seemed to surface again. Perhaps distressed that he had not broken Murray in the eighth game, Federer was broken at 15 in the ninth, missing consecutive forehand inside-in shots at the end of that game. Federer had lost his serve for the second time, allowing Murray to serve for the set. Murray pounced on that opportunity, holding at 15. From 30-15, he was terrific, acing Federer wide to the backhand in the ad court at 132 MPH, then releasing a service winner at the same speed that elicited a weak netted backhand chip return from Federer. Set to Murray, 6-4.

Murray absolutely needed to win that first set, more so than Federer did. The 25-year-old had appeared in three previous finals at the Grand Slam events, losing to Federer at the 2008 U.S. Open, to Federer again in Melbourne two years ago, and to Djokovic at the Australian Open of 2011. On all three of those auspicious occasions, Murray had been cast aside in straight sets, raising the level of his distress. But now he had broken that nine set losing streak, and the electrified Centre Court crowd showered him with a brand of support he hoped for and needed. Twice before in his seven previous Wimbledon finals, Federer had come from a set down in the finals to take the title, recouping in 2004 and 2009 from those deficits against Andy Roddick.

But the fact remains that Federer has been an unassailable front runner in Grand Slam tournament finals across the years. He has grown accustomed for the most part to setting the pace early and building on his leads, striking down opponents with growing assurance. He knew he was in a serious skirmish with Murray, who was buoyed by his first set success and determined to make the most of it. He nearly did.

At 0-1 in the second set, Murray saved a break point, and approached the net behind a backhand crosscourt to lure Federer into a passing shot error down the line. Murray held after three deuces to reach 1-1. At 2-2, he had a big chance, reaching 15-40 after passing Federer down the line off the forehand and then putting away a high forehand volley. Federer was very fortunate at that juncture, miss-hitting a forehand approach shot completely. Federer’s poorly struck shot somehow stayed in, and landed in an awkward spot for Murray to counter. Federer took that point with an overhead. At 30-40, Murray went for a backhand crosscourt return off a first serve but did not give himself the necessary margin for error. Federer escaped, holding for 3-2 after saving the two break points.

At 4-4, Murray had two more break points. Had he exploited either of them, he would have been serving for a two sets to love lead. On the first, he made a fine return with excellent depth, and Federer sensibly responded with a flicked, high trajectory forehand deep down the middle to the Murray backhand, rolling that shot with extra topspin. Murray foolishly tried to go down the line off the high ball, and missed that shot flagrantly long. He quick garnered his second break point, but a determined Federer erased that one by putting away an overhead off a short lob. Federer opportunistically held on for 5-4, averting what could have been a devastating service break against him.

When Murray served at 5-6 in that second set, a tie-break seemed nearly certain. He led 30-0, but Federer used a forehand drop shot to set up a backhand pass up the line. Then Murray missed a forehand inside-in, making an unforced error that was quite costly. Federer suddenly sensed that this was the moment to put a little magic into the air, to perform with the brilliance and spontaneity that have been his hallmark for so long. At 30-30, he moved up to the net, played a delicate and elegant drop volley, and Murray narrowly missed a lob over the Swiss Maestro’s head. It was set point for Federer. He moved forward commandingly again behind a backhand crosscourt approach. Murray hit his passing shot crisply crosscourt off the backhand, but Federer produced a backhand drop volley winner at the most propitious of moments. That was surely a stroke of genius, and probably only he would have attempted it at that critical time.

In a flash, it was one set all. Murray had put himself into a possible winning position, but Federer had soared to another level when the stakes were highest. Federer was serving at 1-1, 40-0 in the third set when rain began falling, forcing a postponement of about 40 minutes. There were those who felt the delay would help Murray to reassemble his game and recover his poise and confidence, but when they returned the roof was up and the match was finished indoors. Federer, of course, has not lost a match indoors since the event in Paris in the fall of 2010, when Gael Monfils saved five match points against him in the semifinals. He had won his semifinal here indoors over Novak Djokovic a few days earlier on the Centre Court. He loves the predictability of the conditions and thrives on his propensity to direct his shots ever closer to the lines without sacrificing control, and to serve with no wind to disrupt his rhythm.

But the view here is that Federer played his two best sets of the match under the roof not only because of the comfort that setting gave him. More importantly, he had survived a crisis of sorts before making it back to one set all, and he felt a whole lot better about his chances. He also realized Murray would surely be deflated. At 2-3 in that third set, the single most important game of the match occurred. It lasted nearly twenty minutes, and went to deuce no fewer than ten times. Murray led 40-0, and had seven game points in all. Federer was denied on five break point opportunities, but he came through on his sixth, opening up the court by drawing Murray out wide on the forehand, then pounding an inside-out forehand. Murray was rushed into a mistake off his backhand. Federer was out in front at 4-2.

That was a fatal blow to Murray’s chances. Federer held at 30 for 5-2, and served for the set two games later. He served an ace for 30-15 in the ninth game, and then sealed the set with another ace at 123 MPH out wide. Federer took that set 6-3, raising his game decidedly in the process. Murray remained unwavering, but Federer was simply outplaying him in just about every facet of the game. At 0-1 in the fourth set, Federer was down break point. He had been winning an inordinate number of points by drawing Murray deep and wide on his forehand side, preventing the British player from setting up for inside-out forehands. With Murray one point away from a 2-0 lead, Federer approached crosscourt off the forehand, and Murray missed a down the line passing shot. Federer held on from there for 1-1.

At 2-2, Federer made his move. Murray was serving at 15-40 in that fifth game, and he came in behind a first rate inside-out forehand approach. Yet Federer was clearly in the zone. His backhand passing shot winner crosscourt was exquisite. Federer had the break for 3-2, and Murray could not break him again. Federer held at 30 for 4-2, held at 30 again for 5-3, and served for the match two games later. Briefly, Murray gave his many exhilarated fans a renewed sense of hope when he took the first point of the tenth game with an excellent backhand passing shot down the line that coaxed Federer into a forehand volley error.

It was 0-15. But then Murray missed a good opening for a forehand topspin lob winner. Federer released a service winner and an ace down the T at 116 MPH. He had climbed from perhaps being two sets down to double match point. Murray cracked a flat crosscourt backhand with extraordinary pace and depth and forced an error from Federer, but he could not rattle a thoroughly composed man who was near the height of his powers. Federer approached one last time behind a forehand crosscourt, and Murray missed his passing shot wide.

That was when Federer dropped to the ground, exhilarated yet perhaps even more relieved, fully aware that he had returned to No. 1 in the world. He will be at the top of the mountain again on Monday, tying Pete Sampras for another record with 286 weeks as the No. 1 ranked player on the ATP World Tour computer. It is not the record itself that is so impressive, because the rankings operate on a revolving one year scale, and Federer is being rewarded now not only for the five tournaments he has won in 2012, but for his stellar record in the second half of last year, which included three tournament triumphs indoors at the end.

The larger achievement for Federer is simply returning to No. 1 at any time. With Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal having had so much success over the last few years, and with both performing with such remarkable consistency, it seemed unlikely that Federer could pass them both, but now he has done just that. That is a testament to an unshakable character and a champion of the highest order. What will be daunting for his primary rivals now is the growing feeling that Federer will not lose even a trace of ambition after his latest major victory. He will be reinvigorated by the win, determined to use it as a springboard toward more big wins, ready to press his advantage at the Olympic Games and the U.S. Open this year, and other majors across the next couple of years.

Of this much I am nearly certain: this will not be his last major. He played some very impressive tennis against Murray, raising his level of aggression with pure conviction. He managed to approach the net no fewer than 79 times, winning 63 of those points. His first serve percentage was 69% for the match. Most importantly, he was able to break down Murray of the ground, even when they went backhand to backhand. He also kept Murray pinned too far behind the baseline, and kept the British player at bay off the forehand. Once he got going, Federer gave a virtuoso performance.

He will win at least one or two more majors before he concludes his career, and perhaps more. As for Murray, he can be proud that he at last performed with gusto in a major final after his disappointing straight set losses in his three previous outings. Federer was generous in his remarks about Murray afterwards. “He’s giving himself so many looks at big titles,” said Federer of his opponent. “Grand Slams are what you guys are focusing on the most. I really do believe deep down in me he will win Grand Slams, and not just one. I do wish him all the best. That is genuine. He works extremely hard. He’s as professional as you can be. Things just didn’t turn out for him in the finals that he hoped for. But today I am sure he got another step closer to a grand Slam title for him. I really do believe and hope for him that he’s going to win one soon.”

Murray, of course, was crushed by this defeat. He poignantly broke down in the presentation ceremony. He knew he had put himself in an enviable position, only to squander a few opportunities, only to witness Federer explosively taking matters into his own hands. The bottom line is that it won’t be easy for Murray to finally succeed at a major. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are not going away any time soon. Federer has been reawakened. Others will be out there providing stern resistance. But Andy Murray would do well to remember that Federer, Nadal and other colleagues remain convinced his time will come at the majors. Surely, Lendl will help Murray through this gut wrenching period. Lendl, of course, lost four major finals himself before recording eight title runs at the Grand Slam events. He knows precisely how it feels.

Sooner or later, Murray will be rewarded for his extraordinary talent, his hard work, and his perseverance.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He was a columnist and editor for World Tennis Magazine from 1974-91. Starting in 1992, he was a senior correspondent for Tennis Week Magazine. During the 1970's and 1980's he served as a statistician for NBC, CBS and ABC on their tennis telecasts. Since 1982 he has been covering Wimbledon and the French Open for CBS radio. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.