The Fed machine rolls on without a hiccup

Roger Federer
Roger Federer

As a ball boy in Basle, Roger Federer once collected Stefan Edberg's autograph. Twenty-odd years later, Federer has won the Stefan Edberg sportsmanship award nine times, four more even than Edberg himself. Voted on by his playing peers, it is a record that brooks no argument about his decency. He has also won the fans' award for the last 11 years. Now Federer employs Edberg, for whatever last little insight into tennis that he has not already gained by himself, and for the company. But he still has - and treasures - Edberg's autograph.

If Bernie Tomic ever pauses to reflect on his tempestuous relationship with the tennis public, he might reasonably conclude that it is Federer's fault. It is doubtful that there ever has been a sportsperson of his stature and accomplishment so little seduced by his fame and fortune. He has set a standard, others have followed, elevating the game, but isolating the few remaining brats, punks and infantiles.

Novak Djokovic, once a tormented youth, is now a veritable sage, also a sportsman who again on Friday night stopped a couple of times to applaud the winning shots of his opponent, Denis Istomin. Rafael Nadal plays by such a gentleman's code that when injured in a quarter-final against David Ferrer here in 2011, he played on to certain defeat rather than cheapen Ferrer's big moment. Andy Murray plays by all the rules, written and unwritten. Indirectly, this is all Federer's doing. If at times the accord is less than perfect, it is all the more to their credit that they are so publicly dignified.

The sense of mutual respect extends beyond the cohort of players. When Federer beat Nadal for the ATP tour championship in 2010, one of the first to give him a congratulatory kiss in the milling throng afterwards was Nadal's mother.

A perspective on all this perspective could be found in one of Djokovic's reflections on Friday night. Asked if it frustrated him that the crowd favour he enjoys in this tournament was not replicated elsewhere, he said: "I cannot be angry on the people who are supporting my opponent. It's all sport. It's normal you have your favourites." In that, there is a message for all, including the writers and readers of these pages.

Of course, it is easy for him to talk, also Federer et al. They are much loved because there is much about them to love. Federer remains such a gloriously natural ballstriker that in an idle moment in Saturday's centre court clash with Russian Teymuraz Gabashvili, while waiting for a challenge on a line call to be resolved, he played a lookaway backhand volley the length and width of the court to where a ballboy, with one arm raised, did not have to move a muscle as the ball landed in his other hand. Among the Swiss, not even William Tell was so unerring.

Three opponents in this tournament have dwelt on Federer's backhand, if only to avoid his forehand. His typical shot against Gabashvili was a topspun backhand, jerking its way over the net and the dipping wickedly on the other side. He said Edberg had emphasised how important it was for a one-handed player to be assertive on the backhand, or else he would never hit the top-spinner.

"The one-hander, it's so natural for us to play the slice that you almost have to tell yourself alway to stay on the front foot and play aggressive," he said. "On a quicker court like here, it's definitely one thing you want to do."

The Gabashvili match followed a familiar pattern: each set was a tussle to begin, a rout at the end, after which he had a word with Gabashvili; he rarely leaves it to a formal handshake. For Federer nowadays, it is not so much that he plays as well as his opponent allows him, but that he plays as well as he needs. He has not lost a set yet in this tournament, wakes up every morning feeling as he rarely did last year, physically ready to play tennis, and because of his slimmed-down schedule is always up for the next match.

He does not delude himself: 32 seeds instead of 16 means that the nasty surprises generally do not manifest now until the second week. But the omens are propitious. He and wife Mirka recently learned that she is expecting again. "Last time she was pregnant, I won the French Open and Wimbledon," he said. "No pressure!" Of course, that was twins. For now, he will settle for one more of each, a baby and a major.

This story The Fed machine rolls on without a hiccup first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.