- The Washington Times - Monday, July 5, 2004

WIMBLEDON, England — None of it was working. Not the cutting backhand. Not the twisting forehand. Not even the pinpoint serve.

All tournament long, Roger Federer made tennis look easy, as if the game could be played wearing a smoking jacket while holding a snifter of brandy; yesterday, much of his on-court artistry was of the starving variety.

And still he won.

Shaking off a sluggish start and finding his touch when it mattered most, Federer captured a second consecutive Wimbledon championship, holding off Andy Roddick 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (3), 6-4 in a rain-spattered tournament final on Centre Court.

Last year, Federer sobbed profusely after defeating Australia’s Mark Philippoussis; this time around, his eyes were mostly dry.

“I cried before already,” Federer said with a smile. “I think that is enough. But this is still an unbelievable feeling. To have won my favorite tournament twice in my career is incredible.”

With the victory, the 22-year-old Swiss earned his third Grand Slam title — he won the Australian Open in February — and cemented his place at the pinnacle of the sport.

“Roger just played too good,” said Roddick, the defending U.S. Open champion who failed in his bid to win a second major. “I threw the kitchen sink at him, but he went to the bathroom and got his tub.”

But not in the manner that was expected. Heading into the match, the question wasn’t whether the top-seeded Federer would triumph; it was whether he might don a blindfold and hop on one foot, anything to make the task appear remotely difficult.

Federer swept through the draw in dominant fashion, dropping a single set. Bewildering opponents with stylish shotmaking, he inspired outright gushing from his fellow players — including Lindsay Davenport, who called him “a perfect tennis player.”

By contrast, Roddick found himself in an unusual position, that of a clumsy, ball-bashing underdog. Though Roddick’s game has improved since astraight-set shellacking from Federer in last year’s Wimbledon semifinals, the No. 2 seed didn’t exactly argue the point.

“The one advantage I have over him is just hitting the crap out of the ball,” Roddick said beforehand. “I’m going to have to try to play to my strengths.”

And so he did. The last time the top two players met in the Wimbledon final, hard-charging Jimmy Connors upset string magician John McEnroe. Perhaps it was an omen: Roddick came out firing in the first set, blasting three aces in his first service game before launching a deep forehand to break Federer for just the third time in the tournament.

“I wasn’t wanting to get in rallies where he could kind of do his thing, come up with spectacular stuff,” Roddick said. “I tried to take it to him. If I had a look at the first ball, I wanted to give it a ride.”

While Roddick whaled away, Federer fumbled and was pushed back behind the baseline. Seemingly stripped of his gifts, he sent shots long, wide, off his racket frame. His first serves were slower than Roddick’s second serves; at one point, he lost control of the ball while dribbling before a serve.

Federer managed to win a sloppy, break-happy second set with a forehand winner but found himself trailing 4-2 in the third. Next came the second rain delay of the match — and with it, Federer’s shift to a serve-and-volley attack.

“I just thought I will get more free points,” Federer said. “He will maybe feel the pressure a little more and cannot take as many chances from me at the baseline when I’m serving.”

It worked. Errors and fatigue crept into Roddick’s high-risk, go-for-broke game; once-punishing returns hit the tape, and his serve speed dipped. Given six chances to break Federer in the fourth, he failed to convert, once walking to the net to shake it in frustration.

Meanwhile, Federer found his touch along with the breaking afternoon sun, taking the third set tiebreak with a backhand pass that left him screaming and pumping his fist toward girlfriend Miroslava Vavrinec. In the fourth, Federer closed the match with a down-the-line backhand and an ace. He fell to his knees, just as he did last summer.

“Somehow I feel even more joy this year because I had so much pressure going into this tournament,” Federer said.

Indeed. If his previous weepy win was both release and revelation — the 1998 junior champ, Federer was long pegged for stardom but suffered a string of Grand Slam flops — then this year’s title was validation for a player who has grown immensely since a first-round upset loss to Croatia’s Mario Ancic in 2002.

A racket-smashing hothead as a youth, Federer later sublimated his emotions to the point of noncompetitiveness; supremely gifted, he was easily rattled when his flowing game hit inevitable ebbs. He also struggled with the death of longtime coach Peter Carter, who was killed in a car crash two summers ago.

But Wimbledon changed Federer, and losing only four matches while winning six tournaments this season has bolstered his confidence. He seems serene now, open and untroubled. Federer travels without a coach and has what Roddick dubs a “locker room aura.”

“The thing with Roger is that he makes it look so easy,” Roddick said. “But he’s really brought it together over the last year mentally. Maybe there were some questions about that before. But if you don’t buy into that now, then I have to question that.”

Roddick should know: At 21, he’s the world No. 2 to Federer’s No. 1. Both players were tabbed for big things after upsetting Pete Sampras — Federer at Wimbledon, Roddick in Miami — and both players won their first Slam last season.

Their contrasting styles could make for the game’s next great rivalry — provided Roddick can hold up his end.

“I’m going to have to start winning some of them to call it a rivalry,” he said. “All is not lost because I lost today. I still had a [heck] of a run. I proved that Roger’s not quite invincible. He’s pretty close.”

As the evening sun dipped over Centre Court, the latter sentiment seemed self-evident. Roddick applauded, his patchy beard slick with sweat. Federer held the trophy, dry in a fresh shirt, soaking up the moment.

He had answered all the questions. In doing so, Federer posed one of his own: If he can win ugly, how will anyone else win at all?

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