Sunday, March 19, 2006

Indian Wells wrap

It happened to John McEnroe. It happened to Venus and Serena Williams.
They got to the mountaintop, and maybe it got lonely up there. Or too intense. There were actresses, and directors, and fashion shows and interior design. To be fair, there were also injuries. They had dominance, a stranglehold on it, and released it. Mac took a break and was never able to fully come back. On her average day, a player with more consonants in their name than vowels whose ranking languishes in the fifties has got a shot against one of the sisters. She may be ranked higher than Serena, who rests at 61.
That won’t happen to Roger Federer.
In the Indian Wells final against James Blake at 4-3 in the second set, Blake had a point to hold serve, and even up the set. He played it nearly perfectly, yanking Federer left and right. Blake finally found himself with a floater at net, and rather than slam the overhead home, he blocked it into the open court.
OK. So you’re Roger Federer. You’re up a set, and you’ve already shaken your opponent’s confidence by overcoming a two-set deficit. Speaking of confidence, you walk out with two-game advantage against most opponents based on your swagger. However, you've been run ragged on this point, and that ball is still pretty far away. What do you do? Ah, you might let that volley go. Blake played a fine point, after all, you might reason.
No. Federer, already trying to recover from the previous shot, sprinted to the other side and barely reached that non-winner, ultimately ripping a shot to earn the break. There was nary a peep from Blake after that, and the match was a wrap in about twenty more minutes.
This is why Federer won’t ever just hand over his crown. Every title’s like his first. He plays with the reality of his situation always in mind, which is that everyone is out to get him. It doesn’t get under his skin (unlike some hard-serving Americans we know) but he relishes it. It’s like he watches his opponents struggle mightily and they get him in a corner, and it makes him chuckle. “Are you still trying to win?” it seems he’s thinking, but not in an arrogant way, then pulls a Houdini.
Federer’s not arrogant. He’s an awesome player, and he knows it. He says things like "Wasn't a real contest today," (after smoking Gaston Gaudio 6-0,6-0) and it’s understood that he’s merely speaking frankly. He could roll out the old "Score doesn't indicate how tough it was" crap, but that's not being humble. That's lying. Federer knows he worked hard to get to where he is today, and when you get to the mountaintop, you don't say "I just got lucky."
It certainly won't be luck when Federer does the expected (of him) and wins the Grand Slam. Right now, he's the only player who has a shot. Not just because he's already won Australia. He'll win all four because he thinks he deserves to. He wants to get to a place where he can be compared to no one. He wants his own mountain.

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