Murray was serving at 6-5 in the second set to take it to a tiebreak. 30-30, two points away, either way. So far, the Brit had impressed everyone with his lack of nerves and unforced errors. He was playing as well as he had to, to win this thing.
And then it happened. This point, in my opinion, not only created set point for Federer, but gave Murray a dark look into the near future. It told him that no matter what he did, and how hard he fought for it, Federer would do something astonishing on a big point. Murray had Federer on the backfoot in the rally, and produced a trademark inside-out forehand to push Federer back to the baseline. Federer had already played a cheeky drop shot in this game successfully. While stepping back to meet the length of Murray’s deep forehand, off-balance, instead of simply putting the ball back into play, Federer managed to play the most stunning shot of the tournament. Cramped for space, he shaped up to play the forehand slice, which fooled Murray into staying back, waiting for it to come to his backhand. To his utter shock, the slice was just a disguise for what it was- a shockingly imperious drop shot, which spun back like a leg-break. Murray didn’t even try, when he saw the ball spin away from him, and he shrugged it off- knowing that the set was stolen. That Federer followed it up with yet another drop, this time a backhand drop volley at the net- was a footnote.
From there on, surely, the first British man to reach the finals since 1938 must have known that nothing has changed. That shot may not have broken a million hearts yet, but it broke Murray’s resolve and his confidence. How could he do that, on that kind of point? That’s a shot players don’t even pull off on their best relaxed practice days.
The writing was on the (honours) wall when the roof had to be closed at 1-1 in the third set. As Djokovic discovered, under controlled conditions, there is no better player in the history of the sport than Federer. That was all that he needed, and it became a tiger setting up a deer as his meal after that. It was only a matter of time.
What impressed many, though, was the Swiss player’s repeated ability to get himself out of tough situations. When he was two break points down in the second set, which was potentially disastrous, he got his first serves in. When he was a break point down in the third set, he whipped a forehand to an unreachable part of the court. Not often has Federer shown such steely resolve in nervy situations. He didn’t even have that ONE horribly wrong service game, like he usually does every set. His on-the-run forehands weren’t hitting the tape anymore, and he was finding angles that only Murray could match until he broke.
It wasn’t the first time Federer fell back on his desire to serve out the match after being just a single break up in the final set. There was a time last year when you felt he needed to be more than a break up to be secure. But now, his second serve- possibly the most underrated weapon in men’s tennis- is more than enough to earn his fans’ confidence. He didn’t flinch while serving it out throughout the tournament, a mental ability that many of his opponents wish they had.
The end was quick and painless for an entire nation. But they know that they’d have nobody else but Federer break their hearts, because he does it with such delicate ease and grace. That he didn’t take a single jibe at critics who wrote him off time and again, and instead charmed his audience with a ‘Felt like this trophy never left me’, made his defeated opponent, whose morale was shattered into a thousand tiny pieces, take that inevitable jibe instead. He spoke for his conqueror when he commented on how Federer doesn’t play badly for a 30-year old, in a quivering shaky boy voice that moved his girlfriend and mother to tears.
It didn’t matter that this was his long-overdue 17th Grand Slam title. Or that he was back at Number 1 after 2 years, a seemingly impossible thought to deal with last year. Or that he would now break Sampras ranking record at the top. Or that this was his record 24th final.
The numbers, in the end, didn’t matter- because as a fan, it was hard not to feel the sheer privilege of watching the way he does it. The way he has done it consistently, after having daughters and an entire family travel with him, day in and day out. The way he had planned his schedule to accommodate more Masters Series tournaments, knowing that he was falling short at the slams. The way he glided across blue clay and be the only man this year to win a title on all three surfaces. The way he planned his rise with surgeon-like precision, making sure that his peak coincided with lady destiny.
The way he will always be known as the Greatest (Tennis Player) of All Time.