Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

John Laverty: Federer could have lost a lot more than a title

Roger Federer

I used to play a lot of tennis. Really loved it. Wasn't very good though, despite countless hours of practice on those terrific grass courts near Ballycastle beach, where my family would spend many a summer.

And one day, when my girlfriend beat me in straight sets, it was clearly time to hang up the old racquet for good.

But I still enjoyed watching the game, and my all-time sporting hero (apart, obviously, from Bestie) was John McEnroe.

Charismatic, temperamental, unpredictable . . . brilliant. Mac was all those things. I would watch him for hours just to see him perform one particular stroke — the whipped top-spin, backhand lob. Simply breathtaking.

The fiery New Yorker played his part in one of the best Wimbledon finals ever, a classic five-setter against Bjorn Borg back in 1980.

That match will forever be remembered for its epic fourth set tie-break, which McEnroe eventually won, and of course Borg's ultimate victory.

That gladiatorial showdown, however, does not top my list of the best ever tennis matches.

No, you have to go back three years, to 1977, for that.

Borg again, this time in the semi-final, and up against the number 8 seed, Vitas Gerulaitis.

The American, who had a reputation for being a bit of a playboy off court, was not expected to hinder the reigning champion's passage to a second successive final.

But Gerulaitis played the match of his life (a life cut short at 40 by accidental carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty heating system), coming back from one set, then 2-1 down with a succession of brilliant passing shots that left the normally ice-cool Swede reeling.

Then, when Gerulaitis broke Borg in the fifth game of the final set to lead in the match for the first time, it looked as if he was on his way to an astonishing victory.

Yet, amazingly, Borg broke back immediately, went on to win the set 8-6 — and, of course, the championship, his second of five.

Rather appropriately, the number one single that very week was Hot Chocolate - with So You Win Again...

Even now, 31 years on, the memory of that game sends a shiver up the spine. But now, I firmly belive, it has been surpassed by what I saw on Sunday.

Indeed, I'm really not sure that, having been lucky enough to experience every minute of Federer v Nadal, Wimbledon, 2008, the bar in tennis can actually be raised any higher.

It had echoes of another Borg-McEnroe decider, in 1981; the brash, young, left-handed pretender, who had lost a five-set final to the same opponent a year earlier, finally ending the five-times champion's reign as king of SW19.

Roger Federer, in my view the finest grass court player of all time, certainly played well enough during the rain-affected marathon to claim an unprecedented sixth successive crown in front of the watching — and, no doubt, mesmerised — Borg.

Yet he found himself two sets down to a Spaniard who knew he had to play the finest tennis of his 22-year-old life to succeed — and was doing just that.

For 26-year-old Federer to pull two sets back — and then lead for the first time in the final set — was the mark of a true champion. To see an already brilliant player visibly raise his game another notch, despite his obvious fatigue and the overwhelming odds stacked against him, made the blood run cold in awe.

No player since H J Cochet in 1927 had ever come back from two sets down in the Wimbledon final, yet Federer looked like springing the greatest Grand Slam comeback of them all.

That he didn't ultimately manage it does not detract from the quality of this encounter, which means I no longer need to stretch the mind back to 1977 to recall the greatest tennis match I've ever seen.

Despite the epic length of the decider — four hours and 48 minutes — and the incredible number of jawdropping rallies, for me there was a passage of play in the fourt set tie-break that was microcosmic of the entire occasion.

That was when Nadal rifled the best passing shot of the tournament to claim Championship Point £ and then Federer somehow bettered it in the next rally to stay in this amazing match.

For someone of my generation, I never really thought that the Borg-McEnroe rivalry of nearly three decades ago could be equalled, let alone surpassed. But I was wrong about that.

Not-so-jolly Roger remains the number one player in the world — a position he has held for a record 232 weeks now. And, despite his success at the French Open and now Wimbledon, Nadal will stay where he has been the last 155 weeks — second place.

But you wonder, now that the aura of invincibility has gone, just how much this defeat will affect Federer.

Yes, the Swiss master, 27 next month, is still young enough to win several more Wimbledon championships and add to the 12 Grand Slam titles he already has.

But with Nadal around he will never have another chance to win six in a row - and, psychologically at least, that is bound to take its toll.

Just ask Borg; a mere 18 months after that 1981 defeat by McEnroe, he had quit tennis for good.

The reason: no longer number one, he simply couldn't stand the thought of being number two.

And he was only 26 . . . hopefully the eerie parallels with Federer have ended already.

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