| Federer even had the edge in serves over Scud
Boris Becker was surely right when he said on air Sunday: “The future has come today.” Roger Federer has ushered in a new Age of Elegance in men’s tennis. Power and grunting muscularity, the dominant currencies of our age, were locked in a trunk for the afternoon as this 21-year-old Swiss took over from Pete Sampras as the master of Centre Court.
Make room on the list of modern sportsmen and women you would pay more than you could afford to watch. Mark Philippoussis, whose nickname, Scud, gives you an idea where his primary talent lies, was destroyed in straight sets Sunday by pure panache. In 1 hour 55 minutes he was sent back to the locker room brooding on an especially demoralising defeat, 7-6, 6-2, 7-6.
Federer dropped just one set throughout the fortnight on his way to the £ 575,000 first prize. The last Wimbledon champion to be so parsimonious was Richard Krajicek (1996), who broke a sequence of seven Sampras triumphs. Krajicek was an every-dog-has-his-day kind of champ. The people who really know this mentally exhausting game think Federer has opened a new imperial reign.
In football, players are running all day like dynamos; in golf new technology is giving the little white ball a fearful pounding; in rugby the new giants are smashing into each other like turbo-charged tanks. To win these days is usually enough. Winning beautifully is a dying art. Since the days of Becker and Stefan Edberg tennis has threatened to mutate into a kind of violence: a trial of forearm strength and racket tenacity.
For almost a decade Sampras kept art’s flame alive. But he, too, made his pact with the power game (remember that lethal serve'). It was the insurance policy that allowed him to play his more flamboyant strokes.
Federer wisely resisted the comparison. “This is one to his seven [Wimbledon titles],” he said once the tears he shed during a BBC interview on court had dried. “I’m just happy to be on the board with Borg and these people; to be a part of the history of Wimbledon.”
At the 117th Championships, in the fortnight of Britain’s despair, Federer discovered just how good he is. We saw him learn, watched his self-assurance grow. A questionable record in the four Grand Slam events was tossed into an Alpine lake.
Philippoussis managed to stay with him up until the first-set tie-break but then you could see the self-belief drain from his arms and legs. “Too good,” complained Andy Roddick after Federer had treated him equally roughly in Friday’s semi-final. The same haunting suspicion seemed to afflict Philippoussis as he twice dropped his serve early in the second set.
In that middle phase of a lopsided contest Federer’s best shots were exquisite and unanswerable. Philippoussis sucked in air. Ayres Rock would have had a better chance of getting the ball back than this giant and increasingly disconsolate Australian.
Federer won without having to perform as majestically as he did against Roddick two days earlier. By 2pm Sunday the hardest work was done – not just by him but Philippoussis, who knocked out Andre Agassi, the world No 1, and Ivo Karlovic, who disposed of Lleyton Hewitt, the defending champion, in the fortnight’s greatest shock. But Federer still woke, knowing he had to make the daunting transition from purists’ favourite to Centre Court governor.
The pedigree was there. He was Wimbledon boys’ champion in 1998 and impaled Sampras as a 19-year-old three English summers ago.
Without his armour-piercing serve, Philippoussis would have been charcoal after an hour. Even here Federer had the cutting edge. His average first serve was 9 mph slower than his opponent’s, but he still outscored him in aces 21-14. The experts are swooning because Federer can win any way he chooses: on any surface, with any array of strokes.
He is not yet in the Sampras league of relentless concentrators. There are times when he becomes almost too relaxed: like the brilliant kid at school who no longer feels stretched.
Sunday put knowledge in his heart and tears in his eyes. The realisation was that he is the world’s best tennis player. His first Grand Slam title was the oldest and best of all.
The age of Sampras ended in 2001. That year, Goran Ivanisevic, who came to the All England Club on a wild card, laid on a festival of eccentricity. Last season Hewitt battered and hustled his way to the title. He was colossal at times. But it was always hard to imagine him summoning such manic, ball-belting intensity time after time. Federer and Roddick were close behind.
It would be a crime against history not to say that Federer will have to reach this year’s pitch a lot more than once for him to deserve the full comparison with Sampras, who is on a kind of gardening leave in Beverly Hills.
Summer’s breeze, though, has certainly flicked over the page. In April, Sampras, who on a record 14 Grand Slam titles, was about to begin his two-month march on London. “I’ve always had this little thing I do when I tie my shoes,” he told Sports Illustrated.
“I finish tying them, slap the ground and say to myself – here we go! But this time, it didn’t feel good. And I stopped, right there and then.”
Maybe he had a premonition of Federer planting flags in his old turf. The new champion’s only cruelty Sunday was to render Sampras no longer missed. When the future arrived on Centre Court it emanated beauty and grace.