Thursday 27 June 2013

Have I seen Federer one last time at Wimbledon? Deja-vu from 2002

My mind went to the memories of 2001 last year when I saw Andy Murray defeating Roger Federer to claim the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics at the Wimbledon. I was in my class 12 then in 2001 as I watched a young Swiss playing his heart out against a champion, a legend when it came to playing on the grass courts of Wimbledon.

Roger Federer met Pete Sampras for the first time at Wimbledon in 2001. The nineteen-year old from Switzerland had nothing to lose. His compatriot, Martina Hingis the top seed at that year’s Wimbledon was knocked out in the first round – so my hopes all rested on the American to defend his title yet again. He looked set to win his 8th Wimbledon title.

Call it arrogance or simply blind faith at that time; I thought there was nobody who could beat Sampras at Wimbledon. It is true, the likes of Marat Safin had won against Sampras against all odds at 2000 US Open, but common on, we are talking about Wimbledon and with such thoughts occupied in my mind, parallely the game went on nervously, it affected me and to many who were present live watching the match. Finally, the nerves got the better of the person, who had expectations from almost everyone.

Tense is an understatement and all I could hope at that time was, the best shall prevail and the best to me was Sampras. No doubts about it. The few images I had of Federer were that of a Sportstar photographs with him next to Hingis and the one holding the Hopman Cup. I was a huge fan of Martina Hingis and I followed their exploits early that year when they ended up on the winning side at the Hopman Cup (2001) in Australia. Long hair, small eyes and a head band to go with, was all I had known of Federer before the match against Sampras.

My worst fears came true as I saw the return from Sampras hitting the net and the next moment Federer down on his knees. He had caught the big fish on the market and he didn’t quite know how to celebrate it. He was the talk of the town and though he didn’t went on to win the championship; the quality of his strokes and play was showcased in a grand way to the tennis audience across the globe. An era was about to come to an end, the domination, the long streak which Sampras enjoyed came to an abrupt halt.

The defeat of 2001, what do I make of it? All I said then was I need a good 18th birthday present next time around when Sampras played Wimbledon in 2002. I was like that back then, and that's how I viewed sports. Sampras battled on for the rest of the season and had lost US Open finals towards the end of the year to another rookie Lleyton Hewitt. He was clearly not winning the titles, but consistently he was making it to the title clashes. Sampras was good, but nowhere near his peak form.

Next year Wimbledon, same hopes and this time Sampras played not as a defending champion anymore. The only time previously he played without defending the Wimbledon title was in 1997 and prior to that was in 1992. This was 2002 and he had lost just three matches in those last 10 years, he played at Wimbledon. He was two months shy of being 31, so there were no issues with ageing. I still had hopes on him to turn it around and win the oldest Grand Slam tournament for the 8th time.

Then the news came as a shock. Pete Sampras knocked out of Wimbledon at the second round by George Bastl. Who the hell is this Bastl? A lucky loser from the qualifying tournament which enabled him to play in the main draw; and coincidentally he was a Swiss too.

I felt and I am sure a lot others felt too, then and there at that moment Sampras time was up. No regrets. Sometimes things do not go as we wish and so be it; he lost yet another five setter match, in consecutive years at Wimbledon and both the winners hailing from the same country. Why make a big deal and instead I chose to relish his 13 victories thus far.

All I hoped was a good farewell and that he got at the US Open, when he won his 14th Grand Slam title in front of his home ground against his countrymen and a rival for many years, Andre Agassi.

I knew, he played his last match and the scene of his wife Bridgette Wilson, wearing a beige coloured outfit exchanging smiles and pleasantries with an emotionally drained Pete Sampras is still etched in my memory. In a span of few months, both my favourites at that time had faded away. First the Swiss Miss, Martina Hingis and now Pete Sampras. 
Image Courtesy: CBS.com
No matter how easy or difficult it is, or was – you just move on. Never in my life had I thought Federer would be the man I would choose to support once Sampras retired, even when he defeated Sampras in the 2001 encounter. Times change and as a sports lover, you gotta pick up someone or fancy someone to win, or else there is no fun. And so, it was Federer, the instinctive choice to support next.

To me, Federer was an ideal replacement for Sampras. Serve and volley at Wimbledon was all there to be seen. Federer won his first title the following year in 2003. Since then and more so from Wimbledon 2004, he has marched on reaching to new heights which yielded him 17 Grand Slam titles, a career Grand Slam, Olympic doubles gold medal and a silver medal. Amongst those conquests, he fought many fierce rivals of the likes of Nadal, Djokovic and since couple of years Andy Murray.

His record streak of reaching 36 quarterfinal appearances is now done and dusted. The last time he went out this early was in 2002 Wimbledon championships. I was talking and thinking about his first win in 2003 while I was cooking tonight and then few moments later I got to know of him crashing out of this year’s Wimbledon. No Maria Sharapova too in the current tournament, my other favourite and now Federer’s exit has made an unknown Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky enter the limelight at this year’s Wimbledon. 

First it was Nadal’s exit, but he was never consistent barring at the French Open and now Federer’s exit is big news for the Fedex fans and to the media; his defeat is even bigger news for Staskovsky and his contingent of supporters.

Now my whole scribbling of memories of the past 10 years begs the question. Have I seen the last match of Roger Federer in Wimbledon? He will be 32 come this August 8th and looks fit to carry on. It isn’t about how fit he is, it is more than that to remain in the peak form when it comes to playing tennis.

For now, I won’t say anything more and I shall wait for this year’s Flushing Meadows before asking the inevitable question which I asked about Sampras to myself eleven years ago at this time of the year.

There is nothing wrong in retiring; it takes a lot more than poor form or injury to give up the sport you love. Legacy is the last thing an athlete should worry and in this case, I am confident Federer knows when it is time to call it quits. 

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