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Steve Flink: Federer's Record Breaker is an Epic

7/5/2009 1:00:00 PM

WIMBLEDON--   About an hour has passed since Roger Federer secured his record breaking 15th major title here on the lawns of the All England Club, and I am still trying to absorb and interpret what happened, and determine why Roddick failed so narrowly to cross the finish line, and figure out how Federer survived despite not breaking his opponent’s serve until the final game of this riveting contest.

Federer somehow held back his old rival Roddick in five tumultuous sets, across four hours and 16 minutes, through a long afternoon and on into evening. He found a way to win a match he almost surely should have lost. He persevered, displayed his immense willpower, kept his composure despite a gigantic effort from his American adversary. Federer came away with a sixth Wimbledon singles crown and a record breaking 15th Grand Slam championship. In his longest skirmish ever in a major final, Federer stopped a gallant Roddick 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5) 3-6, 16-14 in four hours and 16 minutes.  It was the longest ever Wimbledon men’s championship singles match at 77 games. The fifth set was also the longest ever contested in a men’s final on the British grass.

But those are simply the cold, hard facts. Let me try to get to the heart of the matter. Roddick created a monumental opportunity for himself, and this loss will surely be as deeply wounding as any he has ever suffered in his distinguished career. Here he was, appearing in his fifth Grand Slam tournament final, giving his all to capture his first major since he won his one and only “Big Four” title six years ago at the U.S. Open. He brought things out of himself he probably did not believe were possible, kept Federer at bay with a magnificent serving performance, and put himself in the best possible position to turn the tables on a man who had beaten him in three finals at the majors, including two on the same incomparable Centre Court.

Roddick made a terrific stand at 5-5 in the opening set, setting the tone for the match in that important game. Four times, he was down break point, and had he lost serve there it would have altered the complexion of the match and put the 26-year-old American in a considerable bind. But Roddick fought his way out of that corner admirably and forthrightly. He saved the first when Federer sent a backhand chip return long; the Swiss maestro challenged that call, but the replay went against him. Roddick stifled Federer on the second break point with a thunderous and unstoppable serve to the backhand again.

Down break point for the third time, Roddick escaped when Federer drove a forehand down the line long. It was called in, but Roddick won a challenge as the replay backed him up. On the fourth and last break point in that game, Federer’s forehand return went long; he challenged that one and lost. And so Roddick held on for 6-5 in a critical game, and there were residual benefits for that effort. He broke Federer for the set in the following game. At 5-6, 30-30, Federer was caught off guard by a surprise flat backhand down the line from a highly charged Roddick. Federer was beaten cold by that shot. The set belonged to Roddick, as did the momentum.

Both players swept through the second set confidently on serve, and now Roddick went after Federer with full conviction. He had lost 10 of 13 career tie-breaks against Federer, who had won 16 of his 19 tie-breaks in Grand Slam tournament finals. But Roddick knew how crucial this sequence would be to his chances for an eventual triumph, and he acted accordingly. He commenced the tie-break with a crackling 143MPH service winner which may have shaken Federer, who promptly made an unforced mistake off the forehand. Roddick had the mini-break, and he exploited that opening almost to the hilt. But almost is the operative word.

Serving at 2-1, Roddick unleashed a big first serve to the forehand that stymied Federer for 3-1, and then an ace for 4-1. He was flowing now, sensing he could take this set and perhaps break open the match, playing every point for all it was worth. With Federer serving at 1-4, Roddick wisely took a calculated risk, driving a two-hander commandingly down the line. Federer was thus provoked into another error off the forehand. Federer closed the cap to 5-2, but Roddick advanced to 6-2 by closing in tight for a forehand volley winner.

He was now right where he wanted to be. The industrious American was at 6-2, quadruple set point, on the very edge of a two sets to love lead that would have carried him to victory. On the first set point, he drove a forehand down the line that Federer answered with an almost casual flicked backhand half volley winner into an open space. Federer then lured Roddick into a backhand return error with an effective first serve. He followed with an ace, closing the gap to 6-5.

But the serve then went back to Roddick. He was off the mark with his first delivery, but produced a fine second serve and took a short ball from Federer and approached to the forehand side. The approach was first rate, and Federer was hard pressed to reply. He rolled his forehand pass down the line. Roddick covered it, and was seemingly ready to punch a high backhand volley into an open court. But he misplayed that shot in the worst possible way, missing wildly. As Roddick explained later, “There was a pretty significant wind behind him [Federer] at that side. It was gusting pretty good at that time. When he first hit it, I wasn’t going to play it. Last minute, it looked like it started dropping. I couldn’t get my racket around on it. I don’t know if it would have dropped [in the court] or not.”

Whatever his reasons for bungling that volley, it was clearly the shot that cost him the match. To have four set points---- two on his own serve--- and not convert was a devastating blow for Roddick. Still serving at 6-6, he came in and was caught in his tracks by a brilliantly dipping backhand passing shot from Federer at his feet. Moments later, Federer collected his sixth point in a row from 2-6 down when Roddick sent a routine two-hander over the baseline. In a matter of three minutes, Roddick had let a golden opportunity to build a two set lead elude him, and a relieved and poised Federer was back in business.

And yet, Roddick did not allow himself to become too full of self pity. He got on with his task and kept holding serve prodigiously, just as he had done from the start of the match. At 2-3 in the third set, Roddick fended off a break point with one of his trademark plays of the day--- a huge first serve into the body on Federer’s backhand side that the Swiss could not return. At this stage, both men were serving magnificently; in six third set service games en route to another tie-break, Federer conceded only two points on his delivery.

In the third set tie-break, it was Federer who seized the initiative. He swiftly raced to 5-1 before Roddick took the next two points. At 5-3, however, Federer’s instincts were excellent. He angled a backhand drop shot acutely crosscourt to force Roddick forward, and despite a reasonable reply from the American, Federer found the opening for a beautifully struck forehand passing shot into the clear. Roddick fought off two set points on his serve, but Federer closed out that sequence impressively on his serve at 6-5. He directed his first serve deep to the Roddick backhand, took advantage of a short return from his opponent, and then nailed a forehand crosscourt winner to gain a two sets to one advantage.

At that stage, I was convinced Roddick would bow in four sets, but he was far from through. With Federer serving at 1-2 in the fourth set, Roddick broke his rival for the second and last time in the match. At break point, Roddick used a two-handed pass crosscourt to set up a backhand down the line pass that Federer could not handle on the low forehand volley. Roddick had somehow resuscitated himself. He served his way through that set with authority, holding from 0-30 at 5-3 by both attacking and defending with discipline and conviction.

It was two sets all. On went Federer into his third consecutive five set final on the Centre Court. He had beaten Nadal in 2007 before losing their almost ineffable confrontation a year ago in the darkness. But this fifth set with Roddick took on another dimension as both men sedulously held their serves. Roddick was at a distinct disadvantage because he was always serving from behind. He handled that task remarkably well, but it was not easy. At 0-1 in the fifth, Roddick saved a break point with yet another clutch delivery, pounding a 135MPH serve to his adversary’s forehand.

Federer missed the return, and Roddick gamely held on. By this stage, Federer was rhythmically moving through his service games, holding almost effortlessly. Federer was keeping Roddick guessing constantly about which way he was going with his first serve. In one sequence of four service games in that astounding fifth set on his way to a 6-5 lead, Federer released no fewer than ten aces. He had 22 of his 50 aces in the marathon fifth set, and the pressure grew on the American to keep demonstrating that he could retaliate.

Roddick did just that. From the moment he served at 4-5 in the fifth, Roddick was boxed into a daunting corner. He served to save the match over and over again, successfully dealing with that challenge ten times. His character and courage during this stretch was nothing short of stupendous. In the middle of that trying period, Roddick had one chance to break, but was unable to take it. At 8-8, the American drove a two-hander down the line for a winner to reach 15-40. If he could have captured one of the next two points, he would have been serving for the match, and would almost surely have been victorious.

And yet, Federer was not going to cede any ground in that situation. He went wide to the forehand with his slice serve, and Roddick steered a slice forehand return long. Then Federer stormed in to put away a forehand swing volley off a floating return, and soon he was out of danger and ahead 9-8. At 10-11, Roddick was pushed to deuce, two points away from losing. But his response was to crack a service winner to the backhand followed by another big delivery that Federer could not get back into play.

Much to his chagrin, no matter how hard Roddick tried to send a message to Federer that he wasn’t going away, Federer plodded on methodically as if he did not have a worry in the world. Three aces in a row gave Federer a love hold for 12-11. At 12-12, Federer was down 15-30, but once more he produced three straight aces. At 12-13, Roddick found himself at deuce again, two points from losing. But he thwarted his rival with two more unanswerable serves. On his way to 15-14, Federer served two more convincing love games, and Roddick was looking weary of mind and spirit.

He managed to rise from 0-30 to have two game points in the last game as he battled so fervently to hold serve for the 38th straight time. But it was ultimately to no avail. A series of miss-hit ground strokes demonstrated that Roddick had reached his competitive limit. A slightly fresher Federer made amends for losing his last two five set, Grand Slam finals to Nadal at Wimbledon a year ago and in Melbourne this year. He reclaimed his Wimbledon title by the narrowest of margins, but he was essentially outplayed by Roddick on this occasion.

It was Roddick who summed up so well why Federer had prevailed. “You know,” he said, “he just makes it real tough. He was having trouble picking up my serve today for the first time ever but he just stayed the course. You didn’t even get the sense that he was really frustrated. He stayed the course and kind of toughed it out. He gets a lot of credit for a lot of things, but not a lot of the time for how many matches he kind of digs deep and toughs it out. He doesn’t get a lot of credit for that because it looks so easy for him a lot of times. But he definitely stuck in there today.”

Clearly, that was the case. And Federer must be given full marks. He is indeed a highly underrated competitor, and it was his steadfast response to a spirited performance from Roddick that allowed Federer to break a tie with Pete Sampras and stand alone as the most prolific winner of Grand Slam championships in men’s history with 15 titles. But the fact remains that this final today was more than the story of another triumph for Roger Federer; it was the story of a painful setback for a player who should have come away with a second career major title.

I fully understand what Roddick was up against on this occasion, but he did not lose the match in the fifth set; he lost it with his inability to close out the second set tie-break and give himself a cushion with a two sets to love lead. That was largely his fault. At this level of the game, that is how matches are won and lost; the great players rarely fail to put the clamps down at the moments of consequence. This would have been an entirely different match if Roddick had done himself justice and claimed the second set.

To be sure, history was not on his side. He headed into this contest with a 2-18 record against Federer, including two losses in Wimbledon finals, one title match loss at the U.S. Open, and seven defeats altogether at the majors. In many cases during this rivalry, Roddick has been outclassed by Federer across the board. In other instances, he tried almost too hard to overcome his gifted rival. Sometimes he did himself in by imploding under duress.

But, in many ways, he was the better player in this final. Irrefutably, Federer had a great serving day himself, not simply because he sprinkled the corners of the service boxes with aces, but because he was so unrelenting in that final set on his delivery. But the fact remains that Roddick went all the way to 14-15 in the fifth without losing his serve, and yet he still was fighting to stay in the match. He had himself to blame for that. Federer must be admired for surviving a brutal onslaught from the fellow across the net, for displaying his customary grace under pressure and refusing to let go, for adding to his legacy as the greatest player in the history of the game. But this was one of the saddest days in the life of Andy Roddick, who threw his heart and soul into claiming the most prestigious title in tennis. In the last analysis, he did everything but win.

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