Sunday's Wimbledon final seemed to follow the script. Rain fell, England's greatest hope to win its first hometown slam in 76 years faltered and the unquestioned king of the grass court — and tennis as a whole — was crowned one more time.
But Roger Federer's four-set victory over Andy Murray was not the mechanical type one would expect from a champion who has now won 17 Grand Slams. He had precision to his game, for sure, but it wasn't the kind of precision he's summoned in years past, when he was bagging about three major titles a year.
Federer hadn't won a slam going into Sunday since the 2010 Australian Open, and whether he would again was in serious question. The ascension of Novak Djokovic, as well as usual rival Rafael Nadal pushing his game to new levels, seemed to have sealed Federer in his place at the top of the game — dominant in his own right, but no longer the champion of the sport in the present.
That changed Sunday. Federer's Wimbledon win, which ties him with Pete Sampras for the most titles at the All England Club, as well as the record for most weeks at No. 1, reaffirms that Federer is not only the greatest of all time but also a force in today's tennis. It's no longer a Djokovic-Nadal discussion — tennis has become a three-man race. And, considering Federer's gusto and mental strength in fighting from alleged oblivion to the Wimbledon crown, tennis may once again be a place where every tournament is Federer's to lose.
It's a heady assessment to give to a 30-year-old player who battled back issues just this week. But in a career where Federer has won just about everything in every way, this Wimbledon will be one of his finest moments — not only for all he accomplished but also for how he won it. Yes, Federer had the hammering forehands and backhands that have won him legions of points. Of course, he scattered the looping drop shots and daring slices that send even the best volley players scrambling. And sure, the pounding serve was present.
But the lasting image of Federer winning Wimbledon in 2012 will not be of Federer's usual grace and precision — it will be of this champion's fortitude.
Murray had a nation and a well-wishing world on his side headed into the match. Newspaper covers, in their usual British hyperbole form, exhorted Murray to bring a title home. And Murray seemed ready to oblige, streaking to an incredible start in the final.
Murray had Federer on his heels throughout the first set, hitting definitive winners while Federer sprayed shots all over. On break points, Murray stood solid. He was persistent, and the crowd stayed strong behind him.
But Federer dug deep and rallied back. A man who has won epic five-set battles and never quits on a point found ways to fight off Murray's varying attacks.
People have always talked of Federer's mental strength, of how he works to have his head in the game no matter who he's facing or how bad it looks. But the recent chatter surrounding Federer has been more about how he seemed to be in denial as he got older. He believed he was the same player, and that he could win, but others weren't quite so sure.
That same focus, which Federer has carried even as his results lagged, surfaced on Sunday. Even as Murray surged, Federer played like he was approaching the match for the long haul.
After dropping the first set 6-4, Federer hung tight. He gradually worked his way back, and by the time he took the second set 7-5, he looked firmly in control. Shortly after, play stopped for about 40 minutes as the roof was put over the court, with Federer up 40-0 in a third set tied 1-1. The movement of the roof may as well have signaled the movement of the game, as the Federer who had started to emerge at the end of the second set came out to finish it off with the roof overtop. From that point forward, Federer was unstoppable, and even incredible play by Murray couldn't keep him down.
Murray gave his last gasp at getting the match back in the third set, where he fought off Federer in a 10-deuce, 26-point game before Federer broke him to go up 5-3 in the set. The battle showed Federer would have to win the championship from Murray — who was excellent in his own right on Sunday — but it also showed why Federer cannot be counted out again.
Aside from his usual skills and intangibles, Federer came back from a place he's never been before — being marked, entering the tournament, as not favored to win or get close. He's dug deep before to pull out vintage wins, but he did it in a new way on Sunday against a serious challenger.
Tennis has a different landscape now that Federer's talk that he isn't finished has been buttressed by a Wimbledon title and a return to No. 1. But of all the scary things Federer can bring to the game, the number one quality the tennis world should fear is what's in Federer's head. This is a man who wants to win, is ready to win and has shown that he can. If he can dig deep when times are rough, what happens when he goes on a roll?
Federer is following the script of a champion, but it's the variations he's writing in as he goes that makes every slam, one after another, a must-watch.
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