- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2003

WIMBLEDON, England — Raw power is the coin of the realm. Oversized boomsticks carry the day. Panache may as well be the capital of France. Or maybe the first name of Madonna’s next child.

But as long as Roger Federer is around, there still will be a place for artistry in tennis.

In the proper hands, a scalpel is as deadly as a chainsaw, a brush as colorful as a spilled can of paint. Yesterday, Switzerland’s Federer demonstrated as much, his quick cuts and masterful strokes dissecting Australia’s Mark Philippoussis 7-6 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (3) in the Wimbledon men’s singles final on Centre Court.

With the victory, the fourth-seeded Federer captured his first major title, becoming the first Swiss man to win Wimbledon.

“It’s an absolute dream for me,” said a teary-eyed Federer, holding aloft the championship trophy. “I always joked around when I was a boy that I was going to win this. Now I have it.”

And not a moment too soon. Art is dead. Dada — in the form of concussive serves and topspin slugfests — is all.

Such was the verdict from a group of prominent former players and writers who last week pleaded with the International Tennis Federation to make high-tech rackets less powerful, the better to restore stylistic variety to the sport. And following last year’s Wimbledon championship baseline battle between Lleyton Hewitt and finalist-for-a-day David Nalbandian, it was hard to argue the point.

Enter Federer, a 21-year-old armed with every shot in the book — and some that have yet to be written. In a semifinal dismantling of tournament favorite Andy Roddick, he was Joyce to the young American’s Tom Clancy, his sublime skills swamping Roddick’s straight-ahead serves and clumsy baseline blasts.

Against Philippoussis, it was more of the same. Federer is the only man on the ATP Tour to have won titles on all four surfaces this season and not by accident. Deft at the net, quick on the baseline, blessed with a big serve and able to conjure winners from all angles, he made the 6-foot-4 Philippoussis look like an oversized cardboard cutout.

During the third set tiebreak, Federer earned a mini-break with a looping forehand return that somehow dropped on the baseline. On another improbable point, Federer stood a foot inside the baseline, then hit a backhand winner off a still-airborne Philippoussis volley.

Though Philippoussis came into the match having hammered a tournament record-tying 46 aces against uber-returner Andre Agassi, Federer beat him at his own serve-and-volley game. He hit 21 aces to Philippoussis’ 14, won 67 percent of his points at the net and never faced a break point. He generally read Philippoussis’ fearsome serve like a celebrity-penned children’s book.

All told, Federer tallied 50 winners and nine unforced errors — a ridiculous margin for anyone not named Andre. Or perhaps Pete.

“He came up with some great passing shots, running forehands and backhand returns,” Philippoussis said. “What can you do? He definitely played very well. He played better than me.”

Particularly when it mattered most. Down 5-4 and serving in the first set tiebreaker, Philippoussis double-faulted. On set point, he ran around a Federer second serve, then sprayed an ill-advised forehand long.

Deflated, Philippoussis surrendered two break points in the second set, both on volleys that failed to clear the net.

“That first set tiebreaker was huge,” he said. “Whoever won was going to go on a roll.”

Federer’s roll wasn’t wholly unexpected. The tournament’s junior champion in 1998, Federer has been tabbed as a future Wimbledon winner since snapping Pete Sampras’ 31-match All-England win streak two years ago.

Still, the road from junior to senior titles wasn’t easy. Federer flamed out in the first round of this year’s French Open, the latest flop in a history of Grand Slam disappointments. And last summer, Federer’s longtime coach, Peter Carter, was killed in a car crash, a loss that left his pupil devastated.

Though Federer lost a single set in the tournament, severe back spasms nearly forced him to retire in the second game of his fourth-round victory over Feliciano Lopez.

“That was a [heck] of a shock,” Federer said. “I thought I had to throw in the white towel. But somehow my back came through, and my game came through.”

Like Federer, Philippoussis knows all about the expectations heaped on promising young men. But unlike Federer, the 26-year-old has spent most of his career squandering his considerable talents on skydiving, skirt-chasing and exotic car-collecting. Not necessarily in that order.

Case in point: En route to his appearance in the 1998 U.S. Open final, won by countryman Pat Rafter, Philippoussis attempted to celebrate a quarterfinal victory by dropping in at a Manhattan strip club — only to be turned away at the door for forgetting his ID.

Nearly forced to abandon the sport following a 1999 knee injury and three subsequent surgeries, Philippoussis reassessed his midlife crisis lifestyle. He moved from Miami to San Diego. Got rid of his motorbike collection. Stopped dating the likes of Anna Kournikova. Started training with a former professional kick boxer. Even took up surfing.

“I’ve been working really hard to get here,” he said. “This is just the beginning for me. I’m only gonna be keener and eager after what happened today, more pumped up. I’m definitely gonna come back.”

In what fashion remains to be seen. While Philippoussis claims he’s no longer an “immature kid,” London’s Sunday Sport yesterday ran what it claimed were recent photos of a shirtless Philippoussis dancing chest-to-chest with a topless dancer in a Sydney nightclub.

Still, Philippoussis has the rest of his revived tennis life to learn that panache is something more than a poorly named dancer at Scores. In the meantime, the Wimbledon title belongs to Federer. And with any luck, so does the future of a sport whose aesthetic shortcomings have less to do with high-tech rackets than with the low-imagination dullards who wield them.

“I enjoy my game, watching myself,” Federer said as a joke to the Centre Court crowd. “I hope you guys enjoyed it, too.”

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