WIMBLEDON, England-The fifth set will always be remembered as an all-time marathon and an exclamation point to the most cherished record in tennis. But the second set was when Roger Federer, on the brink of falling into a two-set hole to Andy Roddick, reminded Pete Sampras that he hadn’t come all the way from Los Angeles to congratulate the first American Wimbledon winner since Sampras won here in 2000.
Yes, you could argue it was Roddick’s own failure to close the deal after holding quadruple set point in the tie breaker. Serving at 6-5, you could accuse him of bad judgment and worse execution on a high backhand volley, on a running Federer forehand that might actually have been on its way out.
You could dwell on that potentially shattering sequence for the man whose serve was unbreakable until the bitter end, but that would be missing the point.
That would be dwelling on Roddick’s moments of frailty Sunday while neglecting the essence of Federer’s tennis immortality. Long before Roddick mis-hit a forehand, finally surrendered, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14, to Federer’s quest for a 15th Grand Slam singles victory after 4 hours 18 minutes, Roddick hit a blistering forehand on the first of those four set points in the second-set tie breaker.
The ball landed deep in the court, at Federer’s feet, on his backhand side. On pure instinct, he flicked at it with his wand of a racket, angled it just enough to direct the ball cross-court, over the net, into open space.
“Come on,” Federer shouted, convincing nobody except himself there was still a way out of the trap.
He believed because he is Federer. Five points later, it was one-all in sets. The match of Federer’s record-setting dreams and — some would say — Roddick’s life was on.
“I thought the second set was obviously key to what came after,” Federer said. “Maybe being down two sets to love, the way Andy was serving, would have always been a difficult situation to be in, you know.”
It was more than the way Roddick was serving; it was how he was holding his own with Federer when the ball was in play. Lighter on his feet after shedding 15 pounds, hitting through the backhand as we have seldom seen him, attacking the net and dropping deft volleys to the other side.
Once upon a time, Roddick was supposed to be for Federer what Rafael Nadal became, nemesis and measuring stick. No one has played more matches on tour against Federer than Roddick. The record is now 19 wins for Federer, 2 for Roddick. But in their fourth Grand Slam final, third at Wimbledon, Roddick finally attached himself to Federer as an opponent to remember, on a day when legends of the sport — Sampras, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Manuel Santana —were in the royal box.
“I feel badly for Andy, this was his chance,” Sampras said after the match on the BBC and before meeting Federer, along with Laver and Borg. “But Roger’s a legend, an icon.”
Best player ever?
“I have to give it to him,” Sampras said. He had graciously made the long trip with his wife, Bridgette Wilson, but it was Laver who earlier in the day had advised us not to dwell too much on the greatest-ever debate. Let vastly different eras be singularly defined, he said. Live in the here, in the now.
“I think the public should just watch his feet, just watch Roger and not the ball, and you’d see how great a player he is to pull off some of the shots,” Laver said.
If we must compare Federer to anyone, let it be his contemporary legend with the familiar corporate backing.
“He and Tiger Woods are good friends, fighting to see who can have the best number in golf and tennis,” Laver said, his point being that tennis’s Tiger takes a back seat to no one.
Federer’s 15th major — one more than Tiger as well as Sampras — was his third straight five-set Wimbledon final. Forget about the greatest player argument; we probably can’t even reach a consensus on which was the better match: last year’s five-set victory by Nadal, 9-7 in the fifth, or Sunday’s epic that featured a record 77 games for a Grand Slam final and the 95-minute fifth set that left Roddick disconsolate, unwilling to congratulate himself for not shattering sooner.
“You know, at that point, like everything else, there’s two options,” he said of the tie-breaker meltdown. “You lay down or keep going. The second option sounded better to me.”
He lost a third-set tie breaker but broke Federer to win the fourth set, matched him service hold for hold in the fifth. Still, in the final analysis, there was no getting away from quadruple set point, from the what-ifs.
The wind had been gusting, Roddick said, when he hit the high backhand volley. He was going to let the ball drop, changed his mind, couldn’t get his “racket around on it.”
He will remember that shot for the rest of his life. Federer Probably more the backhand he took off his toes three points earlier, a stroke of pure tennis genius.
For those of us who had taken Laver’s advice, focused on the feet, that shot was a symbol of the greatness in the man, if not a signal of what was to come.