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Order in the Court

July 13, 2009
July 13, 2009

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July 13, 2009

'89 WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
GOLF PLUS
LEADING OFF
WIMBLEDON
BASEBALL
PRO FOOTBALL
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
'59 WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
'69 WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
'79 WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
'99 WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
'09 WHERE WILL THEY BE?
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Order in the Court

In another epic Wimbledon final, Roger Federer outlasted Andy Roddick to win a record-setting 15th Grand Slam singles title and reestablish himself as the undisputed king of men's tennis

She does not cut the typical figure of a tennis player's wife. She has never acted, modeled, recorded an album or worked as a game-show hostess. At 31 she is a decade older than some of her counterparts. She dislikes being photographed and has gone years without giving an interview, even to her hometown newspaper in Switzerland.

This is an article from the July 13, 2009 issue

Mirka Federer (née Vavrinec) is, however, a vital—the vital—figure behind the relentless success of her husband, Roger. The de facto chief of staff of Federer, LLC, she's rarely seen without her Blackberry in hand. Three years her husband's senior, Mirka, the daughter of jewelers, has classed Roger up, introducing him to life's finer pleasures. (Goodbye, Levi Strauss; hello, Anna Wintour.) A former pro player who cracked the top 100 before her career was ruined by a chronic foot injury in 2002, she sometimes practices with Roger before his matches and is always able to talk shop. "I developed faster, grew faster with her," says Roger, who has been with Mirka since meeting her at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and married her in a small ceremony in his hometown, Basel, on April 11. "She has been with me day in and day out, throughout the world, and has helped me considerably as a person."

During the last nine years Mirka has had a front-row seat—literally—for the hottest one-man show in sports. And on Sunday, though eight months pregnant with the couple's first child, she took up her usual post in the Wimbledon players' box. With striking calm she watched as her husband played a positively epic match that included the lengthiest final set in the tournament's history. When he finally broke Andy Roddick's serve and closed out the insta-classic match 5--7, 7--6, 7--6, 3--6, 16--14, he clinched his 15th Grand Slam singles championship, eclipsing Pete Sampras's record for men's tennis.

This latest title, Federer's sixth at Wimbledon, cemented his status as the Greatest Player Ever—let's move on to a new topic, shall we?—and offered one of the most compelling plot twists in the tennis narrative. A year ago Federer lost a spellbinding Wimbledon final to Rafael Nadal. (Federer fell behind early but rallied after Mirka found him during one of the midmatch rain delays and sternly reminded him, "You are Roger Federer.") That match was seen as a coup d'état, King Roger toppled at his home court. Federer, though, returned to win the U.S. Open two months later, as well as the French Open a month ago. After Nadal pulled out of Wimbledon with a troublesome case of tendinitis in both knees, Federer suddenly was poised to reclaim his throne.

As if to alert his competitors (subjects?) and the rest of the world that he still reigned, Federer carried himself with a regal air at great odds with the modest Everyman persona he'd cultivated earlier in his career. He arrived in London via private jet, leaving a sizable carbon footprint for someone who moves so lightly on the court. While the rest of the field lodged in modest apartments and townhouses in Wimbledon village, Federer stayed in a sprawling manor a mile or so from the All England Club. He strode onto Centre Court wearing a Rolex, a Sergeant Pepper--style blazer that covered a gold-trimmed shirt and belted shorts, and gold-accented Nike shoes bearing his initials—all the while clutching a gold-and-white man purse.

King Bling's play was as lavish as his attire. For all the bells and whistles—the winners on the dead run and the impossibly angled, casually flicked half volleys—Federer's game is based on power, precision and poise. In the final he smoked 50 aces, nearly double Roddick's total. And with Sampras watching from the royal box, Federer gamely soldiered on until, after 37 unsuccessful return games, he finally cracked Roddick's serve. "He gets a lot of credit for a lot of things," says Roddick, now 2--19 lifetime against Federer. "But not a lot of the time is [it for] how many matches he kind of digs deep and toughs out."

While Roddick's eyes were moist and red-rimmed even an hour after the match, he shouldn't be demoralized. For a player who often claims he wants only "to be in the conversation," he again figures prominently when it comes to contending for major titles. Like the flamethrowing pitcher who eventually loses something on his fastball but develops a mean slider and sinker, Roddick, who will turn 27 on Aug. 30, has lately been supplementing his brute force with subtlety and variety. Under his coach of eight months, Larry Stefanki, Roddick has lost 15 pounds and improved his court positioning, net game and down-the-line backhand. He takes more calculated risks. In this, his seventh straight year in the top 10, he is playing as well as ever.

After bulling through the first five rounds of the tournament, Roddick met Andy Murray—the Scot saddled with the pressure of becoming the U.K.'s first homegrown champion in 73 years—in the semifinals. Murray, the highest seed in the Wimbledon draw behind Federer, had all but hijacked the fortnight to that point, receiving encouragement from most every prominent Brit (the Queen, Sean Connery, David Beckham) and dominating local news coverage to the point of making almost all other stories irrelevant (something about a pop superstar who died in L.A.?).

Roddick, though, put an end to the "Andy-monium," winning in four sets. Yes, he served 21 aces, but he also rallied patiently, volleyed expertly and showed clever tactics that haven't always been part of his game. When it was over, he did his part to splinter the Ugly American stereotype, applauding the disappointed crowd and mouthing, "I'm sorry."

Though Murray didn't win, he was still able to make a bit of history. For more than a century persistent rain showers at Wimbledon had delayed play, doused fans, constipated the match schedule, triggered entirely too many weather-related conversations and (perhaps most important) infuriated television executives. Finally the ladies and gents at the All England Club commissioned a retractable roof for Centre Court that debuted this year. It's an odd marriage of tradition and technology—akin to putting an IMAX screen behind the altar at St. Peter's—but somehow tasteful too.

Naturally, shelling out roughly $150 million for a roof was a great way to ensure days upon days of cloudless skies. For a week, anyway, Wimbledon 2009 was in danger of being spoiled by pleasant weather. But when the heavens finally opened (barely) on the evening of June 29, the roof at last closed. A crowd of 15,000 stared upward in silent awe, as if glimpsing the Sistine Chapel for the first time, while 3,000 tons of steel trusses, translucent fabric panels and lights unfurled 50 feet above the grass court. It was Murray who played the first full Wimbledon match indoors—and the first night match at the All England Club—defeating Switzerland's Stanislas Wawrinka in five gripping sets. Then it was back to six more days of tennis entirely al fresco.

Together, Federer and Nadal have won 19 of the last 21 men's major singles titles. In the women's game, meanwhile, there has been an almost equally potent duopoly. Serena Williams beat her sister Venus in the 2009 Wimbledon women's final, the eighth time this decade that the name WILLIAMS has been engraved on the winners' board. At some level, yes, we've been there, done that, bought the snow globe. But really, does this story ever get old? Two sisters who once shared a bedroom in Compton are now passing their sport's biggest titles back and forth, as if sharing a Sno-Cone in the backseat of the family car. They've matured. They've endured the murder of a sibling. Their parents have divorced, and their father recently remarried. Still, they keep plowing through the field.

The boxing brothers, Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, both heavyweight champs, won't dare fight each other. With no bloodletting in tennis the Williams sisters reluctantly face off. Their intrafamily matches are generally hollow affairs, long on heavy hitting and short on tension, and last Saturday's final was no exception. Serena dialed in her serve and prevailed 7--6, 6--2 to win her 11th Grand Slam singles title.

Praise of the sisters tends to ride tandem with complaints that their WTA colleagues offer too little resistance, and for five rounds at Wimbledon neither Williams came close to dropping a set. In the semifinals Venus took on Dinara Safina of Russia, the top-ranked player in women's tennis—repeat: the top-ranked player in women's tennis—and woodshedded her 6--1, 6--0. The match was so one-sided that even Venus's mother, Oracene Price, began to nap midway through. "She gave me a pretty good lesson today," Safina said afterward. In the same round, however, another Russian, Elena Dementieva, held match point against Serena. She couldn't close the deal. "Someone," says Martina Navratilova, "needs to step up against them."

But a more accurate assessment goes something like this: Venus is an exceptional grass-court player whose heat-seeking strokes and fluid movement are enhanced by the green stuff underfoot. And Serena may simply be the fiercest competitor in sports. Facing that match point to Dementieva on her own serve in the third set, Serena attacked and hit a backhand volley that nicked the net and fell into the open court for a winner. Was that how she'd planned the point? "I thought I was gonna hit an ace," Serena says. "The next thing I know, I was at the net. That's all I remember, really." Who else thinks like this?

Serena may not sweat her results in Stuttgart or Strasbourg, but when the majors roll around, she plays as though losing takes its toll in blood. Over the last 10 months she has won three titles: the 2008 U.S. Open, the 2009 Australian Open and now Wimbledon. "[She's] two completely different players," says Dementieva, "when she's playing Grand Slams or she's playing other tournaments."

As if to punctuate their dominance, the sisters won the Wimbledon doubles title without dropping a set. And, to the dismay of their competition, they're not going away anytime soon. "We've talked about playing the 2012 Olympics," says Venus. "And we've talked about playing doubles in the 2016 [Games if they go] to Chicago."

Same for Federer. In spite of breaking the Grand Slam singles record, getting married and expecting a child, he claims to be as motivated as ever. "Mirka's dream was always that our child can see me play," he says. "So there you go. I have to play a few more years just because of Mirka."

Minutes after Sunday's final, Federer slipped on a new jacket gaudily embroidered with a gold 15, commemorating his record—one last touch of regal imagery. As his expectant wife waited back at the rental house, he went through the usual ceremonies and interviews and then left the grounds en route to the Champions Ball. It may have been dark outside, but the sun hasn't set on his empire.

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To read Jon Wertheim's 50 Thoughts from Wimbledon, go to SI.com/bonus

Federer's play was as lavish as his attire. For all the bells and whistles, his game is based on power and precision.
Venus is an exceptional grass-court player, and Serena may simply be the fiercest competitor in sports.
PHOTOPhotograph by BOB MARTINBORN TO SERVE Federer (foreground) fired a career-high 50 aces—22 in the last set—to keep himself in the match until he finally broke Roddick's delivery.THREE PHOTOSSIMON BRUTYHOME TEAMS As Mrs. Roddick, Brooklyn Decker (far left, in glasses), and Mirka looked on, Roddick battled until Federer leaped in victory.THREE PHOTOSBOB MARTINTOWERS OF LONDON Venus (bottom) dominated till she met Serena (right and below), who snagged her 11th Grand Slam trophy.