Yesterday’s Wimbledon’s final was an odd match—perhaps the oddest I’ve ever seen. Tim Henman got it completely wrong when he said, “This match had everything,” because in fact it was about as one-dimensional as a tennis match could be. There were few long rallies. Both players had great difficulty returning the other’s serve. It was often scrappy and there weren’t many close games. In many ways it seemed a throwback to the “boom boom” tennis of the late 1980s and 1990s, when, on grass at least, players with big serves and not much else could almost always win. How different it was from the Nadal-Fereder finals of the previous three years, which were contests of baseline play rather than of serving—and, as a result, were much more thrilling.
I suspect the change may have had a lot to do with the hot and dry weather over the past fortnight, which meant that the courts became extremely hard and fast, making it increasingly difficult to return big serves. Certainly, I’ve never seen Federer so nonplussed by an opponent’s serve as he was by Roddick’s yesterday; at times he was made to look almost foolish by his inability to get them under control, especially when Roddick served straight at his body. On the whole, I thought Federer played (for him) a poor match. He was strangely lethargic and seemed incapable of taking the initiative; his baseline play was much more tentative than it had been in earlier rounds. He looked nervous. Perhaps, in an odd way, Nadal’s absence only added to the pressure he was feeling. He knew that there was really no excuse for him not to win this time, and beat Sampras’s grand slam record, and that knowledge made him unable to play his natural game.
And so Federer did something that isn’t really in his nature, which is to play dirty. His attitude was: I’m not going to make much effort to break Roddick’s serve; but I’m going to make damn sure that he doesn’t break mine. And we’ll see who cracks first. In that surreal final set, the match became a hellish battle of endurance. Federer didn’t so much win the match as force Roddick to concede it.
Perhaps that’s why Federer seemed less delighted…