Of wounded Tigers …

For years Roger Federer has steamrolled, dismantled, and humbled his opponents with consummate ease. The ranking of the opponents or the stage of the tournament didn’t really matter. The comments that followed from the vanquished ranged from ‘I played my best Tennis but he still outclassed me’ to ‘To be called a rivalry, I’ve to start winning once in a while’. The almost humble salute to the crowd after every victory, the graciousness to his opponents in victory and also in the odd defeat, had become synonymous with the Federer Tennis style. Almost every opponent who has played against him, every coach who tried to plot his downfall admitted that the gap was too wide and Federer stood taller than the rest.

The hallmark of a true champion has always been the fear and respect that he generates in the minds of his opponents and the continued dreading that he can and may win against them even from impossible situations. Federer generated that awe in his opponents from the start of 2004 when he became the top seed. He generated a kind of hopelessness and despair in an opponent which was rarely seen in the sport. The frustrating part for the opponents was that they couldn’t even hate him for that. He was not overtly aggressive. He wasn’t in-your–face. He was too polite to be engaged in verbal warfare.

For all these years Rafael Nadal had stood between Federer and the unofficial title of the ‘all time great tennis player of the world’. Nadal was his Achilles heel. Nadal was his nemesis. Nadal was his Kryptonite. Nadal was the only current player to have a better head to head record against Federer (if one takes a minimum of 5 matches or more, else Andy Murray also qualifies) 10 – 6. The French open trophy was the only one missing from the cupboard, thanks to Nadal. Federer hired Jose Higueras, a clay court specialist as his coach in April 08 in a desperate attempt to fill this void on his trophy cabinet. This was after a hiatus of playing without a coach for almost a year. This showed his desperation to find an answer to the Nadal riddle.

A few points to note in this entire Federer – Nadal rivalry was that, in spite of the better head to head stat for Nadal, there was still a yawning gap between them in the ATP ranking points. The head to head on a clay court was favoring Nadal 9-1, which meant that on all other surfaces it stood at 5 – 1 Federer. The fact that most clay court skirmishes had happened in the finals was ample proof that Federer himself was no mean clay court player. The fact that they met only 6 times in non-clay court tournaments with Federer winning many of them (the tournaments) & more, also is self explanatory. But all this analysis to Roger would be nothing but a pointless excuse. The search for perfection didn’t stop with 2 surfaces, nor did it stop with the ATP rankings. Not for Roger for sure.

The year 2008 hadn’t been too kind to Federer. A Win/Loss record of 26-7 with only one title to show, losses to Mardy Fish, Radek Stepanek, Andy Murray and a stunning straight 3 set loss to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open semi final didn’t bode too well for his chances at the French Open 2008. He later revealed that he had suffered from mononucleosis during the Australian Open. But critics had started questioning his aura of invincibility. Was he past his prime? They had built a super hero image around him and a super hero wasn’t allowed a slump in form. The appointment of Higueras had given mixed results. He lost to Nadal twice at Monte Carlo and Hamburg in the finals. The entire world’s eyes were fixed on the French Open though. If news paper reports were to be believed Roger limped through to the finals. 3 out of the 6 matches that he played were won in straight sets, 3 were won in 4 sets. The 4 setters included the quarter finals and semi finals. Raffa on the other hand had blasted through his opponents without dropping a set. He seemed to be in imperious touch. It was one of the most eagerly awaited finals. Bjorn Borg, whose record Raffa was set to equal had put his bet on Roger, stating that he had become more aggressive and this could be his year.

Cometh the final, Roger Federer was rudely reminded of the gamut of feelings his opponents went through while playing him through out his glittering career. Hope at first, a bit of irritation at missing a few, a feeling of frustration when one’s best is not good enough for the guy on the other side of the net, desperate new measures and tactics to get a toe hold in the match, a sense of helplessness to see those tactics fail and finally complete abject surrender. All this happened in a span of less than 2 hours.

One feels that more than the result or the manner of losing, what would have stung Roger more would be Nadal’s reaction on winning the match and his comments there after. When Nadal closed out the victory, his celebration was muted. He briefly raised his arms and walked to the net, where he and Federer put their arms around each other.

“Today it was tough for Roger, I think,” Nadal said, “and I have to be respectful with one very good guy.” “Roger, I’m sorry for the final,” Nadal said. An opponent feeling sorry for you is the worst thing one wants to hear after a crushing defeat.

Roger Federer for a long time needed tremendous self motivation to go out there and perform because of the lack of any real consistent threat. How long can one sustain the motivation for improvement if one is already way above others? Others start catching up with one and if one’s form dips a bit one’s supremacy starts getting seriously challenged. Maybe Federer still thought that it was his dip in form which was losing matches for him. Normalcy would return once he recaptured the elusive form. But the French open was more than a loss. It was humiliation and a humiliated champion is like a wounded tiger.

There is an interesting story about Aravinda de Silva and Kapil Dev. That was the time when Aravinda had just arrived in international cricket as an extremely gifted batsman and Kapil was just slowing down a bit with age. In those days bowlers normally were not given the charge. But Arvinda had started to give him the charge even before the ball was delivered. Arjuna Ranatunga who was batting with him came down and asked him to mellow down. He said some thing to the tune of “don’t arouse a tiger, even an old one can destroy you”. One has read this story many years back so the details may be incorrect.

Roger Federer is only 26, not an ‘old tiger’ by any stretch of imagination. The French open defeat may sting him into some serious introspection & action.

Federer won the Halle tournament last week in an emphatic fashion. With this victory he took his unbeaten record on grass to 59 matches. He didn’t drop a set or even his serve through the tournament. Raffa at the same time won his first grass court title at Queen’s club in London beating Djokovic. Wimbledon 2008 promises to be riveting.

Tiger Woods is another name that comes to mind which generates that sinking feeling in an opponent sans any hostility. To take the latest example, the reaction of Rocco Mediate to Tiger’s magical 15 feet birdie put that took the 108th US Open to a 18 hole play off –“You can’t ever expect him to miss”. How can one believe that one’s opponent, who is struggling with a knee injury, on the last hole, one stroke down, can make that shot under that kind of pressure? Mediate did. Tiger made him think so. The play off was equally exciting but Woods prevailed as was expected. No wonder Nike saw a great opportunity in bringing together 2 of the greatest sport icons in the form of Federer and Tiger Woods in their promos in 2007.

This was the Roger – Tiger ad from Nike last year

The difference of 2 remains constant, though the score has moved to 14-12 now. One wounded tiger will be chasing another wounded (literally) Tiger’s record. The saga continues.

Posted by Rahul

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