3 July 2005

There’s something in his smile. It only comes after the match and there is nothing flashy in it. The teeth may barely show but a warm and blissful wonder grows through the down-turned Federer face. At last he can be happy.

On Friday, Roger had those three sets against Lleyton Hewitt to smile upon, the first two as dazzling in their power and beauty and invention as anything you will see in tennis. Poor Lleyton hardly got a sniff as Roger stretched and hit and surprised him. It was highly charged.

It was one-on-one combat, and yet for Federer the histrionics were confined to that little double-footed jumping turn of frustration when a would-be winner had strayed. Hewitt was important, but the real test was to play to the Federer potential.

There should be arrogance here but Federer’s genius has a purity about it which is uniquely appealing. The next few weeks will see two other men with claims to be the greatest performer their sport, or any other, has ever seen. But for all their astonishing respective achievements, neither Lance Armstrong nor Tiger Woods handle themselves in and out of competition with an open charm anything like that of Roger Federer’s.

True, both Lance and Tiger may have new records up ahead and both can be winningly articulate when they wish. But there is also an unattractive jaggedness about Armstrong and an unappealing control-freakery in Woods which makes it hard to imagine either walking into a press conference as Federer did on Friday to modestly and wittily handle questions in English, French, German and Swiss/Deutch – not even excluding the compulsory joke in each language about the cow Juliette, his hometown reward for winning Wimbledon 2003.

Before the tournament started, BBC TV asked 10 leading players to film a preview for them. Every one bar Federer found a reason to decline. A day later a walking interview with Radio Wimbledon hit a technical snag as he entered the most famous gates in tennis. “Could we ever do it again,” gulped the hack. “Of course,” said Federer, “I have the time.”

Yes, he has the time. That was the glory of it on Friday. We all know that Hewitt is a scrapper, the fastest man in tennis, but here he was being pushed around by a force that was just awesome to behold.

In no other sport do you get to enjoy a full two hours of close-up study of the athlete in action. In tennis on the Centre Court you seem to be looking not just at a player’s shots but into his very soul. With Federer, even the physique is something of a contradiction. At 6ft 1in and nearly 13st, he is a big, almost heavy-looking figure with a crumpled face that in concentration is hardly a thing of beauty.

Yet the moment he picks up the racket he is transformed into an extraordinary creature with a lightness to match the power, a speed to equal the stealth, and, above all, the hawk-eyed intelligence to harness the skill. He doesn’t just trade shots from the baseline. He is always keen to move you about until either the angle has got sharp enough to make the return impossible, or to give him the chance to leap around the backhand and hammer away with the full force of the forehand.

“A lot of people say that his backhand is his best shot,” said Frew McMillan on Friday, “but they are wrong. The forehand is something else.”

Later in the day the rain came and the TV gave the one billionth showing of the Borg-McEnroe tie-break in the 1980 final. Once again you were gripped by the drama. But they were on a different planet to the big Swiss cat who had made the Centre Court his own that afternoon.

In their separate ways both Borg and McEnroe were driven by fires from deep within. So, too, is Federer and in his early days he was a shouter and a racket-thrower of almost Supermac dimensions. What’s exceptional about Roger is that he has harnessed the force and can talk about it. “I had the feeling that I was wasting too much energy on getting upset,” he explained on Friday, “but it took me another year or so to get the fire back.”

Today we will see him in his pomp and yet he’s not 24 until next month. He is at this moment so close to perfection that there is a wistful thought that it cannot last. Life is unsparing and distractions come to the mind just as injuries slow the body. So let’s relish while we can the winning made beautiful. If Roger Federer plays like he has this past fortnight we, as well as he, will have plenty to smile about.

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