It was January 1995 when in the sweltering heat of Australian summer, Pete Sampras faced a two-set deficit to then-rival Jim Courier, and the news that his long-time coach and friend had a terminal illness. Sampras broke down and cried for his mentor in a rare display of emotion before reaching up and firing an ace.
Through blistered feet and unstoppable tears, Pete came back to take the match, eventually winning it an hour past midnight.
That instance when the King of Swing turned around a fast-growing tide in his favor represents the greatest moment in men’s tennis that I have ever been witness to.
Not just because there is something magical about conjuring up a perfect shot during the most dire of situations; not simply because this was a rivalry to behold between great friends turned sporting rivals; but because it is in such moments that a sportsman truly transcends the ordinary, and defies the devastation caused by human emotion with as much poise as he does a relentless opponent.
Almost a decade later, even as I began to accept and like and love and be awed by Roger Federer, I wondered if the Swissman would ever display the mental strength and grit that Sampras embodied, time and again, at the biggest moments, on the grandest stages, against the fiercest opponents, witness to the most hostile crowds.
Happily, I did not have to find out for the first four years of Roger’s stellar career.
The man who took the baton from the great Pistol Pete was not only flawless in his exquisite strokes, his mental acumen, and his all-court genius, but also above and beyond all his challengers—and I had, along with his million adoring fans, accepted that fact.
Rarely was Roger pushed to a limit where he would have had to display something greater than what he already did so well. If an opponent was being difficult, the virtuoso would merely dip into his arsenal and produce a shot of such genius that a mere mortal would struggle to put it in words: “What was that—a squash shot?” one would stutter. “A baseline half-volley?” another would interject.
And then, four years ago, something changed.
Rafael Nadal came on the scene with his high bounce and left-handed spin directed at Federer’s only glitch, his weaker backhand. But very soon it wasn’t about Rafa’s leftiness or spin, it wasn’t about Roger’s backhand.
It was that Nadal was tilting their head-to-head surreptitiously in his favor. Very soon it was that the once-unstoppable Federer had a ‘nemesis.’
Genius shot-maker that he is, Federer did not so much lack an answer to Rafael’s topspin as he did to the challenge that this seemingly-insurmountable Spaniard posed from across the net. Soon Nadal was as much in Federer’s head as he was on the other side of the court.
This was evident in the Swiss legend’s flashes of brilliance against Rafa on the red dirt of Roland Garros, in his toppling of the King of Clay at the Hamburg Masters a couple years ago, and in their countless encounters on concrete and grass, where either could come out on top.
Rafael Nadal has often been touted for pursuing every point as if it were his last; he has been credited with believing that he can win in any situation, be it down 0-5 in the decider or 40-0 at match point. Sampras is known to stick it out in the toughest situations, emotional and physical, and Bjorn Borg was probably the leader in mental and physical resilience.
Federer, by contrast, seems to have given away some seemingly-winnable matches at some of the most crucial moments. What comes to my mind immediately are the Monte Carlo Masters Final against Nadal last year where Roger quickly gave up a 4-0 lead in the second set to lose the match, and the Australian Open final earlier this year where he had little left in the final set.
The match against Andy Murray at Indian Wells last month, followed by the one against Novak Djokovic at Miami were shockers, not just in the way that Roger seemed to take away losses from the jaws of victory, but also in the observation that such lackluster performance from the Swiss was hitherto singularly directed at Nadal.
But then again, this is a relatively new thing. We all remember Wimbledon 2004, with the score at a set apiece, when Andy Roddick cruised with a one-break advantage in the third set, only to come back from the rain delay to find Federer a changed man. The newly crowned King of Grass turned things around in a hurry, and saved six break points in the final set before wrapping up the match.
Similar performances against the charismatic Cypriot, Marcos Baghdatis, down under in 2006, and against Janko Tipsarevic on the same court last year, come to mind. As if to continue the ‘test of Melbourne’ series, he fought from two sets down against the heavy hitter, Tomas Berdych, admittedly with some help from the Czech.
But as the wins against top players come fewer and farther between, will Federer choose to hang on and fight or will he start accepting defeat?
Recent evidence points to the latter. Not for lack of his on-court brilliance, but rather despite it.
The increasing errors from his usually lethal forehand side during the big points, the lower service percentage, and the reluctance to come forward and take control of points are all proof of that.
Lesley Visser asks, “Is Federer's run over? Will he ever win another Grand Slam? Or does he just need Dr. Phil?”
It’s a valid question. One that only Federer can answer by taking some steps in the right direction.
Nick Bollettieri puts it best: “Roger is the best tennis player who has ever played...But maybe he needs somebody who kicks him in the ass and says to him: Hey, you’re the best, you will win!”
Often times, that’s all individual sport is about.