Jul 1, 2008

The Nirmal Shekar Column

Federer easily passes the Hewitt test
Nirmal Shekar
The Aussie’s challenge dies out after the loss of the first set in a tie-break
London: The Federer Syndrome, a severely distressing and painfully debilitating condition that can lead to abject public humiliation, is a rather common affliction in men’s tennis today. Symptoms vary but sufferers normally experience a suddenly diminished sense of self-belief, a shocking inability to come to terms with reality, and, typically, tend to harbour the illusion that the enemy is really a friend.
The condition — a variation of the Stockholm Syndrome — is so named because it generally strikes men when they happen to be standing across the net from Roger Federer and conducting serious business in a major tournament. Even players who are renowned for their mental strength are not immune to the ravages of the Federer Syndrome, as the Aussie Lleyton Hewitt found out in the 122nd Wimbledon championships on Monday.
The only passage of play that mattered in the fourth round match that Federer won 7-6(7), 6-2, 6-4 was the first set tiebreak. And it was here that Hewitt, normally a man bubbling with self-belief and ever willing to spill his guts on the court, simply refused to accept that the great man was nowhere near his best.
The players had worked their way to the tiebreak with wearisomely ordinary and singularly undramatic tennis. The five-time champion was rather error-prone on his groundstrokes and surprisingly low on confidence. But Hewitt simply could not bring himself to accept that his great opponent was playing poorly and may be ripe for the picking. It was obvious to almost everyone but Hewitt that Federer was very much vincible at that point.
The Aussie had visibly tightened up at the start of the tiebreak but a forehand error from Federer left the door open for Hewitt. If the opponent had been anybody else, the Adelaide warrior would have made a brave charge and taken command.Blind to reality
The mis-hit backhand from Federer, the easy forehand pass that was not made — there were so many hints. But the Aussie stubbornly refused to accept reality for what it was. It was almost as if Hewitt, in a quiet moment beyond the baseline, was telling himself: “How can Roger be anything but perfect? That is not possible.”
In the event, Federer cleverly drew Hewitt to the net with a sliced backhand and then hit a forehand pass to go up 8-7. An ace took care of the rest. Game, set and match Federer.
The players were on court for another hour but you knew then that the match was over.
Federer had 22 unforced errors in the match and 10 of them had come in the first set. That he suggested a return to customary altitude in the second and third sets was only because the tiebreak victory boosted his confidence.
Then again, even on a day when he was below his best, Federer’s serve stood by him. He hit 21 aces, many of them at crucial points.
“I served well today,” said the champion, who won 53 out of 62 first serve points. “The key was the first set tiebreaker.”
Asked if he had answered the critics who thought he might be vulnerable in this tournament, Federer said: “Well, I am playing well. I have beaten some tough opponents. But I guess I still have work to do before all the people will be quiet.”
Hewitt too admitted that the tiebreak made all the difference. “(In) the tiebreak I had chances. You know, the first set could have gone either way,” said the Aussie.
In the quarterfinals, Federer will play the Croatian Mario Ancic, the last man to have beaten the Swiss at Wimbledon.
Ancic, who beat Federer in the first round in 2002, came back from two sets down to outlast Fernando Verdasco of Spain 3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 13-11 in a shade under four hours.
In the women’s championship, Jelena Jankovic of Serbia, the second seed, showed tremendous courage to keep her fourth round appointment with Tamarine Tanasugarn of Thailand despite a serious knee injury. But she found out that bravery alone was not good enough to beat a determined opponent. Agnieszka Radwanska surprised fourth-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-4, 1-6, 7-5 to make the last eight.
Also into the quarterfinals were India’s Leander Paes and his Czech partner Lukas Dlouhy. They beat Travis Parrot of the United States and Filip Polasek of Slovakia 7-6(2), 7-6(6), 6-4. In the girls championship, India’s Poojashree Venkatesh went down fighting 6-4, 3-6, 1-6 to Jessica Moore of Australia in a first round match.

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