En route to his first French Open title, the one Grand Slam title that had eluded the greatest tennis player ever, Roger Federer was awaiting the serve of his opponent, the little-known Swede Robin Soderling, when a wacko leaped from the lower-tier stands onto the red clay and ran straight for the Swiss ball machine. Perhaps Federer instantly recalled the infamous video of one-time women’s star Monica Seles being stabbed in the back while on court by a deranged German fan in 1993 for he instinctively darted away from the oncoming man, clad in what looked like a red satin soccer shirt and jeans.
You couldn’t help but react in horror when the exhibitionist actually caught Federer for a couple of seconds. Even though the intruder had first waved some sort of team flag at Federer like a maniacal matador, the actual physical contact was not funny. Did he have a knife? Was he going to strike the Sultan of Slams? Were we going to witness yet another senseless act of violence against a celebrity? No, the man tried to wrestle some sort of goofy red hat onto Federer’s head. Federer wriggled free as security personnel raced toward them and chased the clown around the court for a good 15-20 seconds before one slammed him to the clay with a shoulder tackle worthy of Dick Butkus.
Federer’s look of stunned disbelief morphed into one of disgust momentarily before Soderling gave him the thumbs-up sign to be sure he was okay before serving for his second game in the second set. Federer, after a blowout 6-1 win of the first set, resumed play as if clowns dressed in red accosted him every day. About two hours later Federer had a 6-1, 7-6 (7-1), 6-4 victory to add to the resume.
Federer Will Be the Jack Nicklaus of Tennis
And so what we witnessed was an important bit of tennis history, of sports history in general. By winning his 14th Grand Slam title, Federer not only tied the record held by Pete Sampras but separated himself finally as the best player ever by winning the one title that Sampras never could. Only six men have ever won all four Slams over a career, the last being Andre Agassi 10 years ago. How fitting then that it was a beaming Agassi who presented him with the trophy at Roland Garros.
At the risk of setting off a rash of protests from golf fanatics, I’ll posit that singles tennis is the most difficult individual sport of all, requiring almost the same physical stamina of soccer with the motor skills of basketball but in an individual format. The psychological toughness required at the highest levels of tennis is unparalleled because there are no teammates to rely on. You live and die by your own creativity in shot selection, your own fitness, your own native athleticism that allows you to hit a ball that routinely now travels 135 mph on serve. So often the victor and loser in a big match are separated by only a handful of points.
Despite having been a sportswriter for a large daily for about three and half years in Dallas 30 years ago, I was never what you would call a sports fanatic. However, I’ve always considered the high point of my short career to be covering what was once the biggest tennis event other than a Slam, the World Championship of Tennis in Dallas. The culmination of a tour of events underwritten by sports billionaire Lamar Hunt, the tournament typically brought most of the game’s biggest names to town. The year I covered it the field included John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and a new kid named Ivan Lendl.
My Run-in With McEnroe
I had the distinct pleasure of getting McEnroe’s goat at the event. McEnroe, still very much in his enfant terrible stage, had behaved liked the jerk he was back then in an easy win early in the week. When the Dallas crowd justifiably booed his gauche behavior of slamming balls into the crowd when he disagreed with a line call, he swore in the press conference afterwards that he would never play in Dallas again.
In my lead in the following morning’s paper, I wrote that Dallasites could only hope he made good on that promise. As luck would have it, my sports editor wanted me to interview him for feature piece in the next edition. When I approached him after a practice session and requested an interview, his immediate response was a cheerful “Sure!” Then he furrowed his brow and said, “Wait a minute. What did you say your name was?”
“Jim Poyner with The Dallas Morning News.”
“POYNER?” the scrawny 22-year-old screeched, turning an angry red in the face. “POYNER? I…I…I read what you wrote in the paper this morning! You’ve…you’ve got PRETTY A LOT OF NERVE to ask for an interview!”
With that, he stormed off toward the locker room. “Pretty a lot of nerve.” I’ve never forgotten that phrase. That non-interview ranked right down there with getting shoved against a locker by Reggie Jackson, another guy short on class in his heyday.
A Mature McEnroe Was Perfect To Call the Match
McEnroe, of course, has grown up in the ensuing 28 years; and he is my favorite tennis commentator. Every now and then, though, he is still capable of mangling the King’s English—but not on Sunday, when he called the historic match. McEnroe has wisely surrounded himself with twits Mary Carillo and Ted Robinson who make even a burp from McEnroe seem brilliant. As a commentator, McEnroe was uniquely qualified to observe Federer’s seemingly impossible quest at the French Open, having lost in the final in 1984 after being up two sets to love against Lendl, who would go on to win seven more Grand Slam titles.
Federer made it to this year’s final after losing three finals in a row to the only player who can beat him consistently on clay, Rafael Nadal. Some tennis historians may be tempted to put an asterisk on Federer’s win because Nadal was upset by the eventual other finalist, Soderling. But, after coming back from two sets down against Tommy Haas in the fourth round and surviving another five setter in the semifinal against Juan Martin Del Potro, no one could deny Federer’s mental resolve after being humiliated by Nadal in last year’s final that included a rare 6-0 whipping. Too, Federer was facing the man who had manhandled Nadal in the fourth round and survived his own five-set semifinal.
In a light rain that threatened to delay completion of the match and possibly give Soderling time to regroup mentally, Federer served for the match and nearly buckled to the monkey on his back when he gave Soderling a break point by hitting a forehand long up the middle of the court. However, Soderling, clearly showing the fatigue of a long two weeks, moonballed a forehand then two points later dumped a fairly easy serve from Federer into the net to allow the Artful Roger to shed his feet of clay and collapse to his knees in ecstatic relief as his weeping mother and beaming new bride, pregnant with their first child, looked on.
On the next commercial break, NetJets ran a brilliant ad showing Federer struggling to pull a baggage cart toward a plane. Two baggage handlers offer to help, but Federer says, “No thanks, I got it.” The camera shot widens to reveal the cart loaded with all of his Grand Slam trophies.
“Pretty soon,” observes one of the baggage handlers, “he’s gonna need a bigger plane.”
Be There or Be Square
If Roger makes it to the Wimbledon final later this month, you’d be a fool not to plant yourself in front of the tube with a nice breakfast that Sunday to see if he can set the Grand Slam record of 15 titles. Even if you don’t know a tennis ball from a basketball, you may well not get another chance to witness such an event for at least a generation.
During the trophy presentation, the Swiss national anthem was played, during which a television camera held a closeup of Federer on the victor’s stand. Slowly, slowly a tear traced down his left cheek, but far different from the tears he shed at last year’s ceremony when Nadal felt compelled to comfort him with a hug.
During Soderling’s brief speech in English, the runner-up said, “Yesterday my coach and I were yoking (sic) and saying that nobody can beat me 10 times in a row, but we were wrong. Roger, you are the greatest player in history, and you deserve this title.”
In his speech, Federer, who speaks four languages fluently, seamlessly went back and forth between French and English, thanking his parents and wife for their support and acknowledging how glad he was to have Agassi there as someone who truly understood the accomplishment of the day. He hoisted the silver trophy aloft again with the traditional kiss.
Then the rain intensifed as even the heavens wept.
A kiss a long time in coming. (Reuters/Regis Duvignau)