THAT EIGHTEENTH STEP TOWARDS GLORY : A Tribute

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Pete Sampras, the undisputed grass court king had already started his invasion to get crowned for the eighth time.It was summer time at Wimbledon 2001 and Cente court awaited impatiently to adorn the King. Pundits were in search of new superlatives to script his legends in history, just then mystery unfolded. A young prince, all in pure whites with flocks of hair than his head band could conceal, fought like a warrior to dethrone the king.His name was Roger Federer.

This upset although shook the tennis world, nobody ever considered it to be ‘the’ match of transformations or a fitting torch passing event until the Prince got crowned for the first time one year later.His successful journey at Wimbledon 2003 was just enough to convince the critics to mark him ‘a legend in the making’.

Since then Open Era Tennis showcased the most complete player, relentless on hard courts at the same time sublime on lawn.A player who mastered both base line game and
serve-volley with ease, awesome with his forehands, clinical with the backhands, rhythmical in his swift moves and magical with his aces.Still he appeared with a gracious smile as if he was most humble human being on earth.

Tennis till then was just another game for a multi sport lover like me. Roger, you defied my senses and at times used to watch your game with crossed fingers,the mannerism which we all Indians exhibited only when Sachin batted. You made the tennis lovers to follow the game eagerly all along the winning ways you conquered, let it be Flushing Meadows, Center Court or Rod Laver Arena.

It was inevitable that there needed something to bring back normalcy to fanatic tennis world and fate made you
stuck on clay. Finally destiny has thrown a rival, the masculine Spaniard. He was tailor made to take the bull by its horn in those sluggish turfs of Rolland Garros, otherwise tennis would have been a ridiculous affair.

Roger continued to amaze the world winning slams after slams but french open remained an unfulfilled dream and Nadal, the nemesis.By the time Federer started reaching
the finals at Roland Garros with his feet firm on clay, Nadal established himself as the King of Clay. Federer stumbled on the final hurdle three times to Spaniard and the fourth time in 2009 got lucky when Robin Soderling knocked Nadal out in the semis thereby enabling Roger to clinch the trophy as well as ‘Career Slam’. His fairy tale ride to 16 grand slams out of 27 events was scintillating.All these years, the rivalry with Nadal continued and gradually the Spaniard had the measure of the champion.

The strategies to upset the champion was loud and clear by then; extend the game, tire him out, push to tie-breakers, play the base-line rallies, force him mentally to commit unforced backhand errors, finally push the match to five setters which as always is unfavorable to him. Easier said than done , barring Nadal nobody had the caliber to raise their games, to plan and execute these ‘roger elimination’ strategies. Nadal tried and succeeded in one of the most intriguing wimbledon finals to deny him the sixth consecutive title in 2008. He continued to trouble Roger on hard courts and ‘the invincible’ tag associated with the champion slowly got shrugged off. Nadal got Djokovic in company and with age not on Roger’s side, power tennis took the upper hand over graceful play and the champion slowly disappeared from lime light.

With the advent of a seasoned Djokovic and an intermittently spirited Murray, mens tennis got into its next transformation period. Nadal unable to cope with injuries had to content with his clay court heroics.In the meantime. an already forgotten Roger just managed to grab one more Wimbledon to make his tally to 17 and an Olympic silver medal where Murray had the revenge for the championship loss.

Roger stayed in the hunt, practiced harder and got into tournament semis and finals but the cup eluded him unconditionally.

With enormous determination he continued to fight with the emerged and emerging talents and occasionally got the better of them. An untimely injury forced him to live
without tennis for almost nine months and his seeding plummeted drastically. By this time, at an age of 35 with an injury prone body any body else would have called it a day. The champion in him might have faded but the fighter in him never gives up. His decision to play the Australian open cometh 2017 was refreshing for tennis as well as for his innumerable fans. The underlying fact is neither tennis world nor his fans dreamt of him playing in the finals.

Djokovic bowed out early, Murray got an underdog bite, all these allowed the fiercest rivals Roger and Rafa to set up a dream vintage final, bringing back those thrilling memories. Head to head stats in finals, grand slams and on hard courts tilted alarmingly in favor of Nadal.Times might have changed but Nadal’s attitude and strategy to counter Federer was the same. Extend the game, tire out federer, push the game to a five setter.

Federer started splendidly holding on to serves and made all the moves to break. Even though the serves lost its accuracy and percentage of first serves in got down, those sizzling aces remained the same which allowed him to grab the first set. As expected Nadal fought back with his relentless cross court power play pushing Federer on back foot and making him run for each point, second set done with ease.

With each crucial breaks at one set all, Federer decided to raise the game. He was in a hurry to finish of his service games with serve and volley. Net points grabbed in plenty and he looked in a different zone. The set completed in no time with him breaking Nadal twice. His backhand was lethal and those magical angles put the crowd not only on the edge of seat but made them stand spell-bound.

Nadal is that sort of player who revels on adversity, quickly changing the serving pattern with bodyline serves.
The service returns were weak and in effect made Roger to indulge in long rallies. Unforced errors started to creep in and control over ball seemed lost. The double
backhands from the ‘leftie’ was spinning prodigiously to make Federer play out of his comfort zone.Those blazing back-hand passing shots got diminished and more over
those slice shots didn’t trouble Nadal any further. At the end of fourth set it was two sets all with a tiring Federer opting for medical time-out.

Fortunes fluctuated, Skills alternated and it looked as if the pressure also got switched set by set. It’s not surprising that no set went to tie breakers as each player dictating terms for that period and other succumbing to pressure.Its advantage Nadal in a five setter as Federer returned after the break. He was eagerly waiting to give Roger the killer blow. The first service game broken and an immediate hold on serve showed all signs of a usual down-slide. At 3-2 it looked all over for the champion and the quench for that elusive title seemed insatiable.

Then rose the fighter from no where, the warrior whom once dethroned the one and only Pete Sampras. The later part
of fifth set featured glimpses of Federer magic. Four games won in a row with two game changing breaks and clinical service games. Even the reviews he took turned fruitful, ‘neutral net’ also assisted in the process. Finally a fore hand winner sealed the eighteenth deal but that too confirmed after review, which summarized the
closeness of whole battle.

Federer was all at praises for Nadal’s return and added he would have loved to share the trophy if tennis could culminate on draws. The eighteenth steps towards glory was not earned in a day or a season. It was the ultimate reward for all the hardships, persistence,relentless practice and all the above the self belief
that he carried throughout his career.

The man who committed ‘two double faults’ in his life didn’t forget to acknowledge his family and crew. He has now written a new script when all and sundry wrote him off.

All the best wishes for a true champion, an amazing ambassador of sport and a wonderful human being.Please continue to grace the sport.

Roger, you are the only person for whom I compromised my patriotism (in an Olympic doubles game against India). Your records might get broken, but you will remain as THE BEST for me eternally.

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