Fed rises, again and again: A Wimbledon final preview from the Balke Bros

6 Jul

Fed Raonic

The Spanish bull charged ahead rapidly. The Swiss maestro seemed to lose steam. Like the rabbit runner in a marathon, who darts out of the starting blocks before inevitably succumbing to more prudent runners in the race’s later stages, Roger Federer seemed doomed to bow to Rafael Nadal’s inspired assault on the former’s status as men’s tennis’ most decorated champion.

But today, in his ninth Wimbledon final, Federer has a chance to stanch the bleeding. By overcoming Novak Djokovic to capture an unprecedented eighth crown at the All England Club, Fed can halt, or at least slow, Rafa’s bid to surpass him on the major title totem pole. Far from surprising, Federer’s run this year in London fits with a broader pattern in the Swiss’ career, in which he has repeatedly defied predictions of imminent decline to regain his position at the zenith of the game.

Coming into this year’s tournament, things seemed decidedly gloomy for Fed fans. Whereas Rafa continued to pile up French Open championships and either threaten or win at the other slams, most people had given up on Fed’s chances of capturing another major. Too old; too slow; too inconsistent: Everyone had a reason why the Swiss was done, at least in terms of hoisting the game’s most cherished prizes.

Predictions flowed in from all sides that the 3-major gap separating Fed from Nadal would surely erode in the coming years, obviating the most compelling chain in the Fed-as-greatest-of-all-time argument. Indeed, one of the only people who seemed convinced Federer could make another run at a slam, and reinforce his claim on tennis primacy, was Roger, himself.

Over the years, the Swiss’ belief has never wilted, even as tennis analysts and casual observers repeatedly wrote him off. Rhetorically and in his on-court performance, Fed has exhibited unwavering belief that his game, if executed to full potential, remains good enough to beat anyone in the world.

This is particularly true at Wimbledon. Since winning his maiden major here as a pony-tailed 21-year-old in 2003, Roger has used the All England Club to propel his march toward tennis immortality. It was here, in 2009, that Fed scored a 16-14, five-set victory over Andy Roddick to secure his 15th major and surpass Pete Sampras on the grand slam titles list, taking sole command of tennis’ most coveted distinction.

But the Basel native, now 32 and a father of four, has also used Wimbledon to revive his career when it seemed to slip onto life support. Coming into Wimbledon in 2012, Fed’s ranking had dipped to three. With Nadal at his peak, Djokovic and Murray entering their prime, and a suite of young guns pining for their bite at the sweet apple of grand slam glory, Federer’s swan song appeared close at hand.

The Swiss had other ideas. Summoning the brilliant form of Wimbledons past, Fed scored a stunning four-set upset over top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals, and followed it up with a hard-fought victory against British hope Andy Murray in the final, claiming his 17th major title in the process. At the outset of the tournament many in the tennis world said Fed was done; instead, he won the whole damn thing.

Following Wimbledon that year, Fed rose to number one in the rankings, eclipsing Sampras’s all-time mark for weeks spent in the pole position. Moreover, the Swiss used momentum from his victory in London to fuel a strong hard-court  and indoor season that saw him finish the year at number two. Like Jordan in ’95, or Tom Watson every year for at least some stretch during a major, Fed was back on top.

2013 proved a disappointing follow-up to the unexpected accolades of the previous year. Federer reached only a single major semi-final, at the Australian Open, and crashed out of Wimbledon in the second-round to Ukrainian journeyman Sergiy Stakhovsky. Even more insultingly, both to Fed’s ego and to your correspondent, the Swiss bowed out in straight-sets at the U.S. Open to Spanish backboard Tommy Robredo, a player better-known for the mind-numbing monotony of his counter-punching style than for slaying major champions.

With things headed in the wrong direction, the vultures started swarming again. Fed’s ranking dipped to 8, its lowest point since Ally McBeal was still airing new episodes. Tennis commentaristas revved-up their doom-machines, foretelling 2014 as the year when Fed would finally fade away.

But, just as he has so many times before, the Swiss has picked himself up and put in one the year’s strongest campaigns. Fed followed a semi-final showing in Melbourne with a victory in Dubai, in which he took down Djokovic and Tomas Berdych to claim the title. He lost in a third-set breaker to Djoker in Indian Wells, tennis’ sixth most important tournament, made the finals of the Masters Series event in Monte Carlo, and claimed a record-extending seventh title on the grass at Halle.

If Fed beats Djokovic in today’s final, he’ll climb back to number three in the world and have a chance to rise further as he nets points during the summer hard-court season by improving on last year’s less-than-stellar performance.

Time and again, detractors have blown the whistle on Roger Federer’s greatness. But, time and time again, Fed has produced a brilliant streak of tennis to get himself back into the mix.

At some point, this won’t happen anymore. Federer will, as everyone does, exit the scene, whether in the form of an abrupt retirement while he is still near the top, a-la Sampras, or, a-la Agassi, following a steady, intractable dip in ranking that paints the writing brightly on the wall.

However he goes and whenever he goes, we can all be thankful that Roger continues to dazzle us with his brilliance. Two years ago, on July 6, the Swiss took down Djoko in a spirited semi on Centre Court Wimbledon. As a Fed fanatic, I’m hoping my man from Basel produces the magic one last time, today.

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