The debates started almost as soon the ball left Andy Roddick’s racket to lob high over his opponent and land several feet behind the baseline. Had Roger Federer sealed his place in sporting history? Was he the greatest ever to lift a tennis racket? Had he transcended the likes of bygone greats like Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, and Pete Sampras?
But for that instant, and for many more that followed, the questions were almost irrelevant. During the immediate aftermath of the most spellbinding tennis match ever played on Center Court, it seemed cruel to shift attention from the other man who was very much a part of this historic day, the man who took nothing from the Championships except the nightmare of a missed backhand volley that would perhaps haunt him for the rest of his life, and the runner’s up trophy for the third time in a row.
There is, perhaps, very little that can make an all-time grand slam record more special. And to that, Roger Federer owes Andy Roddick.
For after four hours and 16 minutes of play, when the Swiss legend leaped into the air following a mis-hit forehand from his opponent and raced to the net, there was little question that he had truly earned it. Following a year of being doubted about his predominance owing to an unflappable virus and an even less relenting Spaniard, Roger Federer was still charting the course of his resurgence.
But on Sunday, Federer had little to prove against his American counterpart, a man he had gotten the better of in 18 of their previous 20 meetings, and thrice on this very court.
So it was no surprise that when Roddick finally took the first set from Federer after battling four breakpoints on his own serve there were still few who would give the edge to the American.
After all, the contest from five years ago was all too vivid to tennis fans. With the match leveled at one-set all, and trailing by a break in the third, a resurgent Federer had taken advantage of a rain delay to quickly turned things around on a hopeful Roddick and deny him the elusive Wimbledon crown.
But this year’s Roddick was different. With impeccably-placed first serves, almost Federer-like anticipation, and his recently-perfected two-handed backhand, when the American number one reinforced his first set win with a commanding 6-2 lead in the second-set tiebreak, things began to look bleak for Federer.
Not literally, however. For rain had no intention of saving the Swiss man’s day as the sun shined convincingly over the English skies, and the newly installed retractable roof looked ready to unfold at the slightest hint of precipitation.
With the backing of four set points behind him, the American unleashed a powerful forehand that would have wrong footed a lesser man. But as is often the case with iconic sportsmen, it is at moments such as these that they remind you what they’re made of. An audacious backhand flick of the wrist was all that was needed from the Swiss man to send the ball sailing crosscourt over the net and into the open court. He was still under the weight of three set points when he reeled off the next two with impeccable first serves.
And then, helpfully, a force more powerful than Roger’s forehand intervened. Still with one set point, and on the brink of wrapping it up, as Roddick approached the net following yet another phenomenal serve, it could all have ended quickly for Federer, except that the American mis-hit an easy backhand volley to even the tiebreak at 6-all.
The fact that Federer immediately seized on this gift from his opponent, and used two stellar service winners to level the match at a set apiece was no more the hand of Lady Luck as it was Federer’s own.
It was, perhaps, Roddick hesitating at the nervous realization that he was about to go up 2 sets to none against an opponent he had never beaten at so significant a contest. Or, as he claimed later, it was the fact that the wind had drifted the ball slightly further than he intended.
Regardless of what forces had come together to devise Federer’s narrow escape from a 2-set hole, however, the Swiss man did not need to call upon anything more than his own sublime talent to race to a 5-2 lead in the third-set tiebreak. It was Roddick’s turn to save two set points on his own serve.
But Federer managed to wrap up the set after dispatching a thunderous serve, and following it up to the net with an artful volley, seemingly in honor of the on looking Pete Sampras, who had graciously made his way to London to witness the potential surpassing of his own grand slam record.
At 2-1 in the fourth set, Roddick displayed some finesse of his own at the net, executing a deft volley–no hesitation this time—to earn a breakpoint. This was followed by an exquisite double-handed backhand–by no means his first of the kind, and one that the Swiss man was yet to find an answer to–setting the stage for one of the longest sets in the sport’s history.
Other than bearing the burden of being the deciding set for this phenomenal clash, the fifth set was relatively uneventful owing to incredible precision by both men. A crucial point came at 8-9, when Federer found himself down two breakpoints, but adeptly fended them off with classic serves and volleys.
The next breakpoint came with the weight of a match point for the Swiss man. Unfortunately for Roddick, this classic combat had to end some time. At deuce point, down 14-15, the American hit a forehand long. Federer forced an error on the next point, as Roddick complied, sending the ball into the sky.
And in that one instant, Roger Federer had created tennis history. He had won his 15th grand slam title, surpassing the indomitable Pete Sampras — quite fittingly, against the backdrop of Center Court, for only the cathedral of tennis could be equal to such an event.
“It’s not a goal you set as a little boy,” said Federer after the match. “I don’t play tennis to break records and it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop playing. I hope to come here and play some good tennis in the future.”
Thank goodness for the tennis world! And thank goodness for Roddick, for after his phenomenal performance Sunday, he’s probably thirsting for a rematch.
When Andy last made it to a final at Wimbledon in 2005, he was treated to a decisive beating at the hands of the man whose shadow he has trailed for many years. “Maybe I’ll just punch him or something,” the affable American joked after that match, echoing the frustration many feel at their inability to counter the Swiss man’s flair with a racket alone.
Four years, several coaches, and a vastly improved game later, Roddick didn’t need to swing a fist to come within points of beating his longtime nemesis.
Chants of “Roddick, Roddick” rang through the arena, as the crowd came to terms with the epic match it had just been witness to. “I’m one of the lucky few that gets cheered for so thank you, I appreciate that,” said the ever-gracious American, quickly overcoming what was clearly a heart-wrenching loss for him. “I want to say congratulations to Roger: well done, he deserves it.”
Andy Roddick has the fastest serve in tennis, has been America’s number one player since 2003, and has finished among the top ten for the past seven years, but what he has done better than anyone else in the field of professional tennis is take defeat with a smile. No matter how decisive the beating, no matter how painfully close the victory.
“If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same,” reads a sign above the entrance to Center Court.
The American may not have his name on the coveted prize of the tournament yet, but boy, does he live by its most stringent rule.