FEDERER IMPERIOUS IN PURSUIT OF RECORD

8 July 2007

The Sun and Bjorn Borg came out to greet him. It was hot and so was he. Roger Federer moved through to the final in three imperious sets. Poor Richard Gasquet was never going to be more than a supporting act. Only the not inconsiderable force of Rafael Nadal stands between Federer and an equalling of Borg’s record of five consecutive Wimbledon championships.

We had last seen Gasquet in the interview room at half past eight the night before. It was just 30 minutes after he had closed out his epic five-set defeat of Andy Roddick, the most exciting match of the whole tournament. He didn’t try to hide his exhaustion, nor his horror when told that the was due on Centre at 12 o’clock the next day. Now he was marching out in front of Federer vainly trying to give out some other aura than that of “plucky underdog”.

The contrast was an unhappy one. In his functional black sweat top and back-to-front baseball cap Gasquet sat on his chair spending an age tying his laces while Federer stood at the net in his Emperor’s white blazer chatting with an official. When the two players finally stood together on either side of the net the young Frenchman looked very much the slighter figure. The official statistics say that 21-year-old Gasquet is, at 6ft 1in and 11st 10lb, the same height and only 10lb lighter than the 25-year-old champion. But then that is the same book which lists Serena Williams as weighing just 9st 9lb.

Federer admitted later that he had seen the weariness hanging on Gasquet in the warm-up and even in the locker-room. Once the match was underway it was evident that the Frenchman was not running down shots on his forehand wing and words like “lacklustre” and “lethargic” made their way into the notebook. But we and he lived on the memory of the fantastic fightback and unbelievable tennis he had conjured up the night before. He made a successful challenge in the very first game. He held serve up till 5-5 and had a break point in the fifth game and two more in the 11th.

What is more he had also given us several glimpses of the shot – that unique whipped backhand down the line which had punched more than 30 winners past a helpless Roddick on Friday. True, Federer had answered the break-point challenges by cranking up his game in ominous fashion and there was a touch of despair in the way Gasquet’s left arm went out in frustrated salute when he netted a volley to give Federer the break. But it was still not one o’clock. A rather frail Margaret Thatcher joined the tennis gods and a ludicrously sombrero-hatted Princess Michael in the Royal Box. Maybe there was a chance that Gasquet could again get the genie out of his lamp.

Oh no he couldn’t. On the very first point, he tamely netted a second service return and, as Federer raced to a 3-0 lead, a rather humbling silence affected this strange topless Centre Court and the fear grew that a slip would become a landslide. To Gasquet’s credit that never quite happened. At 4-1 and 15-30 down he countered one of those huge, driven Federer run-round-the-backhand forehands with his own sizzling trademark backhand down the line. Then he capped that by winning the game with the cheekiest of drop shots and, when Federer finally served out for the set, another game had been held to turn in a respectable 6-3 scoreline before a red-shirted trainer was called to apply what looked like 100 yards of strapping to the Frenchman’s left ankle.

In the commentary box the phrase “it’s a blown Gasquet” proved irresistible, but the final 6-4 third set was proof of at least some level of opposition. Indeed, the frenchan drew the loudest applause of the match when getting the better of a prolonged rally to win the first game and provoked Federer into a great leonine roar of frustration when he failed to make an impact on the 10th game. “He served too well for me in the second and third set,” Gasquet said afterwards of the Federer 15-ace blitz before adding the concisest of summaries, “I was tired. It was Roger. It was maybe impossible.”

When he was just nine years old Gasquet was featured on the front of a magazine under the headline ‘Richard G. the champion France has been waiting for?’ Up till now he has not quite fulfilled these hyped-up expectations but Federer is firmly among his admirers . “He played a phenomenal match yesterday,” Federer said. “I enjoyed it so much, to see him play that way. He had over 80 winners. That is just incredible tennis.”

The post-match press conference is one of the most insightful privileges in all of sport. With the adrenalin still pumping, the players are led behind the podium for our enlightenment and quite often it comes straight from the heart. “I need to improve a lot of things,” Nadal said in his best English yesterday, “My serve, my volley, my aggressive game – everything. I play two Wimbledon finals. That is very good. But I just have 21 years old one month ago.”

Federer’s English, not to mention the French, German and Suisse-Deutch in which he conducts all his interviews, is a bit more fluent. “I’m very excited,” he said about the chance of equalling Borg’s record. “It’s an incredible moment for me, especially playing Nadal in the final. We’ll see what kind of an approach he comes out with. I know I have got to play aggressive, serve well, play the grasscourt game I can. Hopefully that’s going to be enough.”

Federer is an awesome mix of artistry and power, aggression and courtesy. Perhaps the most revealing came after the Marat Safin match more than a week ago. One earnest questioner was repeating queries on how much he used his reputation and personal aura to intimidate opponents on the Centre Court. “Look,” Federer said generously, for he rarely scorns questioners, “I don’t do any of that stuff. I just try to play great tennis.”

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