It was disappointing that Andy Murray lost, but it wasnt
disappointing that Roger Federer won. Federer, even when cast as an
enemy, is a joy, a phenomenon, a miracle. He beat Murray in the final
of the Australian Open on Sunday; he won his six***th grand-slam
title; he has gone beyond the competition of the present and the past.
So naturally it is time to wonder if he can capture the most elusive
prize of all, a calendar grand slam. Rod Laver is the only man in the
professional era to have done it, in 1969. Winning the Australian Open
is not just the best but the only way to start. So Federer is one down
with three to go. He won the French Open and Wimbledon last year and
could do it again; he was the beaten finalist at the US Open in an
upset. Its possible.
With his defeat of Murray, he made yet another claim to be the
greatest performer in sport. Tiger Woods has gone into some private
meltdown, but Federer is still out there hungry as ever, in love with
victory, in thrall to his talent. You can make a case for Michael
Phelps and Usain Bolt, but Federer is out there playing a high-profile
sport and peaking four times a year.
And getting better. He and Murray love to rally, their games are made
for each other. But there was Federer, covering the court as well as
ever, with an undimmed instinct to chase and fetch and carry, happy to
do the dirty work before he turns defence into attack.
Murray played really, really well. The fact that Federer beat him in
straight sets does not contradict this. Rather, it tells us something
about how good Federer was on Sunday. I think this has been one of my
finest performances in a long time, he said. Or maybe for ever.
What more can he do? The grand slam is only one possibility, and a
relatively far-fetched one. But Federer is only 28 and unsated. He
might put that record of career grand-slam titles beyond reach. Could
he play five more years? Could he manage an average of, say, two
titles a year?
You do the sums. It was a breathtaking achievement when Pete Sampras
won his thir***th grand-slam title at Wimbledon to make his mark as
best ever. How could anyone make Samprass career look like small
beer? But thats what Federer has done.
The Swiss has done this by being a serious threat on any surface;
Sampras never cracked clay and his record is grass-court heavy. But
Federer is the ultimate omnidimensional player who can find his best
tennis anywhere, even on the red dirt, and when he finds his best,
well, even Murray at or close to his best couldnt get close.
Then there is health. Rafael Nadal has suffered tendinitis in his
knees and had to default from the Australian Open with another
apparently different knee injury. Murray had problems in 2008 with
his wrist. But Ol Man Federer just keeps on rollin along. For the
last ten years I go in week in, week out, he said. Every practice I
play, I hope Im going to be healthy on the other side. But my game is
not as taxing as other players games.
He has a stable family life, and recently became the father of twins.
He is in no hurry to start the rest of his life: what he does gives
him profound satisfaction.
And he loves being No 1; loves the idea of being No 1. He feeds off
the deference. I have never seen a player like him for working on an
opponents weakness: mildly, serenely, composedly, unmaliciously
destroying him. Yet for all that, he is not averse to going slumming
for his victories, as his sustained passages of defensive play against
Murray showed clearly.
This is a great player all right, and he seems likely to do more great
things before he is done. Everything about his nature and his game
points at longevity. His performance against Murray in the final can
be interpreted as a single statement: you aint seen nothing yet. If
Nadal can start bouncing like Tigger again, if Novak Djokovic can
become more consistent, if Juan Martn del Potro can get more control
of his power and if Murray can simply keep going, Federer will have
plenty of challenges ahead. But I dont see Federer quaking in his
boots. Well see where it ends, he said. I hope not any time soon.
Me, I have flown across the world in search of a great British story
and there were long moments when I thought I was going to be able to
tell it. It didnt happen, but this doesnt feel like a wasted trip.
Lord, I would have loved to have written about Murray and the ending
of the 74-year drought of British male grand-slam singles titles.
Federers victory wasnt the story we wanted not in newspaper terms,
anyway. I crossed the world in search of a great story. I didnt get
it; instead, I have a story of greatness. Again.