Pushed to the limit Wednesday against Gilles Silmon, Roger Federer (above) showed why many consider him the greatest of all time. (AP)
To me as a Melbournian, the Australian Open is the tennis equivalent of a village fair. Being the summer holidays in Australia, Melbourne Park is packed with young people and families. Children line up to get their face painted in national colors. Teenagers roam sponsors’ stalls on Grand Slam Oval for freebies and gift packs, local rock bands hit the stage in the beer garden, while mums and dads sit back and watch their toddlers run through water fountains in Garden Square.
There’s a bit of tennis going on too.
I turned up to Day 3 of the Australian Open intending to catch a bit of the players’ practice sessions before heading to Rod Laver Arena for Federer v. Simon.
The day went by rather uneventfully. I found myself admiring bursts of excellence from Philipp Kohlschreiber, whose entire career seems to have been defined by these “bursts” that never quite become a steady flow. Richard Gasquet (“Baby Fed”) v. Adrian Mannarino soon followed, before I braved the afternoon sun for Viktor Troicki v. Nicolas Mahut and Grigor Dimintrov (“Fetus Fed”?) v. Stan Wawrinka.
Clearly, single-handed backhands were the theme of the day.
But in the end, there was only one single-handed backhand I came to see. By 9 p.m., Rod Laver Arena was packed and murmuring, and I -- as a Federer fan -- was so on the edge of my seat that I might as well be suspended in sitting position mid-air.
If you didn't know about Federer's 0-2 head-to-head record with Simon before, surely you knew by Wednesday night. From a Federer fan’s perspective, both losses came within a six-month period in 2008 when Federer wasn’t quite his usual world-beating, blazer-fitted, smooth-talking self. This was an anomaly of form that must be set right.
And for a while, Federer looked right on track to doing so. It is difficult for me to describe the way Federer played in the first two sets because -- well, everything worth saying has already been said over the last few years. It seems that every time we begin to talk about Federer’s game, we resort to the same combination of bingo words, “poetry in motion,” “religious experience,” a “masterclass” that any low-ranked, unseeded player offered up for sacrifice in the early rounds of a Slam should gratefully take.
But Gilles Simon was no ordinary low-ranked, unseeded player. Something about him troubles Federer, whether it was the sprinter-like court coverage sometimes reminiscent of Andy Murray; the spectacular backhand passes which made Federer’s ventures to the net backfire; the pestering consistency of Simon, giving away so little while remaining utterly undaunted by “the big boys.”
The turning point of the match came earlier than the scoreline would indicate. While Federer was up a set and a double-break (4-1), out of nowhere, Simon gets one break back, hitting with a brilliant backhand pass in the process. It was inconsequential, as Federer would go on to finish off the set in a few games’ time. But in that moment, the crowd, Federer, and perhaps Simon himself, all felt his presence in the match. He was no longer getting blown off the court by Mr. Banana Smoothie, now he had a foothold.
At the beginning of the fourth set, everything suddenly changed with astounding pace. Federer was starting to lose his rhythm on serve, spraying forehands, incapable of hitting through the seamless defense of Simon, who just moments ago seemed utterly defenseless. The crowd was riled up, Australianizing Simon’s name with cries of “C’mawwwn Gilly Symmo!”
By the start of the fourth set, Gilly Symmo was playing with a brazen belief that he could outhit Federer from the baseline. I, on the other hand, was fast developing half-moon scars under my eyes as I rocked forwards and backwards in my chair. You just wouldn’t understand this degree of emotional investment. Or would you?
Andre Agassi once talked about two opposing forces that pull you towards and away from the finishing line simultaneously. For Federer, this was epitomized in the nightmarish way in which he lost the next two sets, momentum and crowd riding on the back of Gilly Symmo, the new adopted son of Australia.
But after all, this is the place where Federer has never fallen before the semifinals, where he charmed the crowd every year with his interviews with Jim Courier, where he once courted coaches and blubbered embarrassingly in front of Rod Laver. By the beginning of the fifth set, the crowd was starting to remember why they loved Federer in the first place.
1-1 fifth set, Federer got down 0-30 on serve, chants of “Roger! Roger! Roger!” rang through the arena, as my stomach ulcerated from the tension. Federer found a few first serves serves, a drop shot, and it was like we’ve seen it all before.
Break point Federer, 2-3, the crowd sensed that this was it -- whistling, screaming and banging on the advertising boards that lined up the arena concourse -- 15,000 hands drumming to the beat of their own hearts. In the next point, Federer would run down a Simon drop volley and flick a forehand pass that Simon can’t get a racquet on. The crowd would be on their feet, pumping their fists in the air, howling like a horde of beasts. And I would be jumping up and down in the embrace of a complete stranger, shouting “YES! YES! WOGER! YES!”
I remember marveling the savagery of spectators in Gladiator many years ago. I wonder if any of that has changed. The few games that followed the break of serve brought out all the savagery of tennis fans -- bellowing wildly at their modern gladiators. When Federer netted a drop shot on match point, half the crowd disappeared behind their hands, groaning in sweet torture. And when he finally sealed victory two points later with a service winner, the arena was on their feet again, crying out with so much passion that you barely heard the finishing line announced dimly into a new day in Melbourne.
“Game, set, match, Federer.” Melbourne native Julie Zhou is the author of the tennis blog All I Need Is A Picket Fence.