Roger Federer, our kind of champion
Playing sport growing up I had two limited desires from my talent-less self. To land a leg-break that turns across the face of a defensive bat and to hit a single-hander backhand that screams past a hapless opponent at the net. The leg-break refused to land anywhere other than by my foot or not land at all. And despite my dogged persistence, the single hander backhand rarely made it past the net. Lack of talent can be deeply annoying.
Watching Roger Federer at Wimbledon on Sunday where he produced luminous backhands upon backhands was to just revel in the splendour of ability. The gorgeous arc as he bent the knees ever so slightly, met the ball out in front and completed a serene motion that ended with the racquet head up above his head was compulsively breathtaking. For all the magnificence of Federer's all-round game, this is the piece de resistance for me. The joy of Federer is in how he underlines your obvious inferiority while compelling you to gawk in awe.
Beyond the numbers, the statistics and the rankings is our kind of champion. Because when he is frail, Federer is incredibly human. He makes the prettiest unforced errors known to sport - shanking shots off both flanks that miss the lines by the proverbial mile; top-edging an intended backhand on Sunday that a club player will be embarrassed by. Yet, not too many of the 38 unforced errors Federer made in the final were ugly. Frustrating yes, inelegant definitely not.
Certain aspects of Federer are startlingly ordinary, devoid of much that defines the modern sportsman. Rafael Nadal is the perfectly sculpted athlete: muscular and chiselled, when Nadal removes his shirt it draws swoons of appreciation. Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are specimens too of a devilish fitness regimen - pulverising their bodies for hours to emerge prepared for the rigours of a challenge of any kind.
Contrast this with Federer. No perfectly toned muscles, no finely sculpted body. He is quite frankly not an athlete cut from the modern cloth. To watch Federer play is to watch an expression of an original gift, not the final product of a relentless pursuit. His movement on court isn't smooth by design; it is designed so it is smooth. I am certain Federer follows a devoted fitness regimen of his own but it doesn't appear to be in conflict with the ease of his being. Notice how he never grunts while playing a shot. Tennis is feet and hands. Not throat and lungs.
When Federer plays tennis, the sport triumphs first. His method to success has been to allow talent to find expression. So you are stunned by the wrist as it conjures a staggering drop shot from behind the baseline, you are in awe of his mastery of the overhead smash he didn't miss once on Sunday, you revel in the free flowing service motion, you gasp at the backhand that gathers speed as it lands on the lines and yes, you even marvel at how majestically he produces an error and nonchalantly carries on!
While ending his dry run at Grand Slams, Federer produced some sharp tennis at critical periods in the Wimbledon final. Most notably at the business end of the second set as he pounced upon an opportunity to break serve, pocketed the set and levelled the match. Yet, in several recent encounters, Federer has been second best at crucial junctures - Djokovic winning last year's US Open semi-final despite being match points down, Tsonga over-turning a two-set deficit at Wimbledon last year, Nadal winning an epic Wimbledon final in 2008 by a score of 9-7 in the fifth set.
Mental strength is a punch-line, pulled out every time a great player emerges at the right end of the result. Just as Federer stayed poised while coming within two points of defeat to Julian Benneteau at Wimbledon this year, he was unable to halt a rampaging Tsonga last year. While Murray was second best at match-altering moments at this year's final, Federer was found wanting at the French open summit clash against Nadal last year.
It is this marvellous ordinariness of Federer that carries the support base along on the ride. We revel in the shot-making yet surrender to his frailty. He often loses, yet never appears to lose the beauty of his craft. It needs a red-hot Soderling or Rosol to dump Nadal out of a tournament. Federer can sometimes crumble to an efficient Berdych, contributing sparkling mistakes along the way! In those defeats too, Federer glides on court as only he can, as only he knows.
As long as Roger Federer plays Tennis, he will remain the pinnacle of sporting exuberance. Unhurried and sublime, his skill is a blessing bestowed on him. His greatest service to his sport has been to not tamper with it too much and allow for it to find full expression. Winning ugly is still winning. But gosh, winning pretty is some winning. And really, with Federer, losing pretty isn't that awful. For that alone, we should be forever grateful.
More about Gaurav KalraGaurav Kalra has been producing sports content on television for over a decade. He started his career at Trans World International where for four years he worked on a variety of programming including magazine shows, news bulletins and live broadcasts. In his next role at Quintus, Gaurav produced a series of programming under the Wisden brand name, including the Wisden Indian cricketer of the century and the Wisden Awards. Gaurav joined CNN-IBN as Sports Editor in 2005.
- + Continue playing the IPL at your peril
- + Forty, you can't get to Sachin!
- + Shed a little light please
- + IPL 6: Hissy fits and shallow symbolism
- + Virender Sehwag - for the muddle in the middle?
- + At war with the wrong enemy
- + At war with the wrong enemy
- + Sachin - A sort of forever
- + Sachin - A Sort of forever