I’d like my crow steak medium-rare, Roger. The greatest tennis player of all time showed us why when he played at Wimbledon. Quite frankly, Andy Murray never really had a chance. And when he did, he was the one who cracked. Federer had an edginess about him; he dared Murray to play the match of his life, the match of the tournament, really, betting that he couldn’t do it. And he was right.
I remember the match last year against Tsonga. Tsonga went for broke on every forehand, every volley. On that day, he had the goods to beat Federer. What we saw from Murray was a man who threw his best punch—if you will permit the metaphor—and Roger Federer stood unmoved, waiting to return fire. And when he did, no one had any doubt of the outcome.
The most disturbing fact about the whole proceeding was that Federer choked away the first set; he led 4-3, having broken Murray’s serve, and lost it, 6-4. Murray missed his opening to break Federer’s serve in the second set, and once that occurred, this match was over. Federer was dominant to close the third, and to begin the fourth. It was very much like a dominant boxer who toys with an overmatched opponent for several rounds in the middle of the fight. When Murray’s courage carried it to the brink of a fifth set, the champion delivered the final blow.
What was very noticeable was Federer’s defense. It immediately became offense, by the nature and quality of the shots. Federer used a low backhand slice to keep Murray from hitting assertive volleys and coming to the net. This wore on Murray; when he got a look at a passing shot on Federer’s own forays to net, he missed it. Federer’s legendary forehand wasn’t at its absolute peak, but it was close enough. One could see that when Federer’s risky forehands started painting the lines, Murray was doomed. In the fourth set, Murray lost his ability to hit first serves in play. Though the announcer and commentators correctly noted that Federer doesn’t like to hit risky forehand returns on second serves, it was only a matter of time before Murray’s weakness spelled his end.
The mark of great tennis, or the principal cause of great shots in tennis, is great footwork. Bad movement indicates fatigue or injury. As so many noted, it has been a very long time since anyone has seen Federer move so well. It allowed the master tactician and shot-maker the time to do whatever he wanted. The only question going into the US Open is how well Federer’s back is feeling. If he moves well, only his underestimated guts can stop him. On that score, I was wrong. We all were.
If Nadal is healthy, he can beat Federer, even on the hard surface in New York at the US Open. The one whose determination and readiness is in question now is Novak Djokovic. It wasn’t slippery at Centre Court on Saturday in the semifinal, but the former world number one slipped many times. He was irritable and erratic. One is forced to wonder if the dark night of Federer and the wear and tear on Nadal have lifted him higher than he is naturally able to go. Only time will tell.
Yes, the 17-time major champion Federer has now regained the top ranking in the world. Perhaps this season of questioning is indeed very much like Ali’s losses to Frazier and Norton on the road back from exile to Zaire. After Foreman, Ali’s claim as the best in the sport was virtually unchallenged until 1978. In the process, he cemented his claim as the greatest ever, just as Federer can do.
Will this seventh Wimbledon crown be a victorious swan song, like the US Open was for Pete Sampras in 2002, or will it be the start of an extended, Napoleon-like Hundred Days, until time and rivals humble Federer? Will he be humbled? As for me, like John McEnroe, I’m done doubting Roger Federer.
Jason Kettinger is an assistant editor at and senior sports writer for Open for Business.