March 1, 2014
Welcome back to the King of Tennis; Fabulous Federer wins in Dubai
It was like that line from the old Beatles song: “I don’t know why you say goodbye I say hello.” Many of us weren’t listening. We’ll listen now. We thought we might have said farewell to the very best of him. Instead it is welcome back to the king of tennis. Roger Federer has proved at last that he really can beat the best again. He can still move like a dream, he can hit backhands and forehands fit for a tennis god – which of course he is. Perhaps most important of all, he can still come from behind to take down one of the current greats.
Roger always insisted he hadn’t lost his touch. He insisted he wasn’t finished just because he had turned 32. A bit of back trouble, he said. As soon as that’s out of the way, just watch me. We laughed. At least many of us did. There’s this chap called Old Father Time, we scoffed. Do you think you can beat him too? No one has managed it yet.
Against Novak Djokovic in Dubai, Federer appeared to do just that.
A 32-year-old, a set down against a 26-year-old. And Novak had won their last three encounters. This was supposed to be the match which saw Djokovic tie their head-to-heads at 16-16. Then the old Roger came roaring back, turning the tide, defying nature itself. Never mind the final of the Dubai Championships against Tomas Berdych – that hardly seems to matter now. It is what happened in the semi-final on the Friday that will linger long in the memory. This was the real final – and it didn’t disappoint.
Novak Djokovic commanded early on and made it look impossible for Federer to find a way back. Roger hadn’t dropped a set then won a match against any of the big players since he took down Andy Murray at Wimbledon in 2012. But there was something gloriously uninhibited about what happened next. Devastating backhands, flowing, unlikely forehand winners, true genius just when it mattered.
Roger found his most irresistible tennis on the biggest points. It takes nerve to do that. Confidence. A disdain for the state of play.
So Novak took the first set 6-3? Anything you can do, my Serbian friend. Before we knew it, Roger had taken the second set 6-3. Surely it couldn’t last? Federer’s age was supposed to betray him the longer they slugged it out in the desert. Djokovic probably thought he just had to hang on in there to watch the older man crumble. Big mistake. Incredibly, wonderfully, Federer wiped the floor with his rival to take the third and final set 6-2. The appreciative crowd went wild. They knew what they had seen.
They had witnessed something many thought they would never see again. Federer, with his effortless grace, had managed to bring a complete player to his knees.
The master had done it. He had extended his lead in those head-to-heads to 17-15.
Of course, the cynics will still have their say. It didn’t really matter, they’ll claim. Djokovic is thinking about his wedding. He is almost treating this like down-time. It was only the best of three. He would have taken the Fed in five, they’ll say. Maybe they are right. Except that no one who watched this drubbing in Dubai actually believed it. Federer was that good. To beat Novak Djokovic and Old Father Time in one fell swoop, you have to be that good.
So we can rejoice over the return of the true great. We can dare to believe he really can bring his best game to Wimbledon now. If he could do that to Djokovic on a hard court, what will he be able to do on grass?
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Mark Ryan, Mail on Sunday’s Reporting Team