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The tallest of peaks in Federer’s sights

Nirmal Shekar

TENNIS / Weathermen predict a gloomy picture for a few days

London: The Swedish pop group Abba’s ‘The Winner Takes It All’ was racing to the top of the Hit Singles chart in Britain, Donnay wooden racquets were disappearing from the shelves of sports goods shops in Europe faster than pints in a Munich beer festival and Time magazine featured a blond, smiling tennis player on its cover, celebrating him as The Incredible Tennis Machine.

Roger Federer had still not been conceived, they played with white balls on the pampered lawns of the All England Lawn Tennis Club and Wimbledon’s high honchos in pin-stripes were soon to be treated to a sacrilegious string of seven angrily spoken words — you are the pits of the world — by a certain American gent with a famous Irish temper.

Five-set epic

Welcome to the summer of 1980. And welcome, too, to a laid back, bow legged Swede who, on a memorable July Saturday that year, outlasted that lovable rascal John McEnroe in a five-set epic featuring a 34-point seat-edge play sequence which is known in tennis folklore as That Tiebreak. Was Bjorn Borg the greatest of all time? This was indeed a popular debate 27 years ago.

In sport, as much as in life itself, time doesn’t fly. We do. And as we take wings, we often forget the past and allow its glorious essence to be diluted. Amidst the adulatory zeitgeist surrounding Federer during a year when critics, former players and connoisseurs alike seem keen on a consensus about who the greatest player of all time might be, it may not hurt to hit the rewind button.

Need to rewind

On the other hand, to get our arguments right, it may be necessary to rewind not only to the glorious era of Borg but also to the seven summers — in a span of just eight years — during which a self-effacing, upstanding Greek-American genius won a record seven titles on the hallowed lawns.

Time passes quickly in sport. But that may very well be an illusion. The fact is, this is not the first time that we have had to wrestle with the question ‘Who is the greatest?’

Another generation of tennis lovers did it in the high noon of Rod Laver’s domination of the men’s game. Then, the question was asked in all seriousness in 1980, when Borg completed a rare back-to-back French-Wimbledon hat-trick. Fast forward 20 years and we were left wondering if any man who ever unsheathed a racquet was as good as Pete Sampras was.

On Monday afternoon, as Federer resumes his long march towards sporting immortality, opening his title defence against Teimuraz Gabashvili of Russia, the Swiss maestro with a keen sense of the game’s history will surely know that the tallest of peaks are in his sights.

But even as he unveils, yet again, a grass court game of hypnotic beauty, Federer will certainly not be distracted by the big debate, no matter that a fifth title in a row at Wimbledon could be the capstone of his fame as a great champion.

Rain threat

Then again, it is not going to be an easy opening week for Federer; nor indeed for the groundstaff and the fans. There is so much rain around that the AELTC could even consider running a sideshow — the Wimbledon lawn swimming championships.

While even the all-knowing Google has nothing to offer on Federer’s breaststroke expertise or Maria Sharapova’s backstroke skills, the weathermen, for their part, have painted a gloomy picture for the first few days of the 121st championships.

But, then, until the retractable roof is in place for the 2009 championships, undaunted, the patient English will do their job and we can turn our attention from tennis to the other popular show of the fortnight — the wonderfully choreographed rain dance featuring the well trained groundstaff of the old club.

Borg may have company

Meanwhile, hang in there; and watch this space. In 14 days’ time, we may very well witness a rare slice of history being made. Good old Bjorn, the original Iceman, might have company at last in the rarefied heights he occupies.

Is anybody good enough to stop history in its tracks? Try Andy Roddick or Rafael Nadal for an answer, although, if we did, the wise men making the odds at Ladbrokes might, over their afternoon cuppa, think that we may be prone to a touch of mid-summer madness.

The women’s championship, in comparison, wears a more open look. Justine Henin looked good in the Eastbourne final on Saturday and will surely start the favourite. But Sharapova, Serena Williams and the defending champion Amelie Mauresmo will all fancy their own chances.

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