As Roger Federer took to the court for his first match of the ATP World Tour finals, expectations were high. Jamie Braidwood was there to watch a genius at work.
Roger Federer does not do low-key entrances. Or, rather, he isn’t allowed to. As he made his way onto the court for his first match of this year’s ATP World Tour Finals, the arena darkened, the music blared and the spotlight narrowed. Then came his introduction.
“Winner of a record 19 Grand Slam titles, including this year’s Australian Open and Wimbledon. ATP World Tour finals champion in 2003, 2004, 2006…”
The list went on. If you didn’t know it already, you were now in the presence of a sporting legend, and probably the best tennis player of all time.
In the O2 Arena in London, the sense of expectation filled the room. Whether you were a casual tennis fan or a Federer fanatic, decked out in the Swiss colours of red and white, you were probably at Sunday’s afternoon session for one reason. To see Roger Federer.
The O2 has housed some legendary performers over the years, from music acts like Bruce Springsteen to comedy like Monty Python. Federer is a sportsman yes, but a performer also, and now a sell-out crowd of 17,500 people had arrived to see his opening act.
Even if you’ve never seen the 36-year-old play before, you can probably guess his playing style from his appearance. Style is the word and Federer exudes elegance and class. Even in his warmup, you could see from the ease of his groundstrokes, and the beauty of his one-handed backhand (more on that later), that he finds everything so damn comfortable.
But of course, not everyone was here to watch Federer play. On the other side of the net, 25-year-old American Jack Sock was hoping to cause an upset. He was making a surprise appearance at the end of season tournament after making a strong end to the campaign, topped off with a win in Paris.
Sock plans to do everything he can to ensure that Federer doesn’t have it all his own way. He couldn’t be less concerned that it would be an unpopular move. That is the beauty of sports. It is a contest, and you have to overcome an opponent and earn the right to win in order to do that. But obviously, Federer knows that better than anyone.
From the start, the Swiss took control. He won the toss, and made Sock serve first. After rolling a trademark backhand down the line, he followed it up with another winner to set up break point. Already Sock was up against it. He duly folded, and Federer took the lead.
Throughout the first set, Federer kept Sock at arm’s length, even despite some bizarre showmanship from the American. But to go back to that one-handed backhand, it truly is a thing of beauty. It’s a shot that Federer executes so perfectly, and it won him crucial points in both sets. The movement is so fluid, all coming from the shoulders, rolling back and powering through the ball. The arc, low over the net, left Sock with a glimmer of hope, but the topsin took it away, time and time again.
There is also an explosive power to Federer’s play, which seeps through during his service games. Federer doesn’t have the fastest serve in the world but the control and accuracy, along with the subtlety of the power, are the reasons that it is perhaps the most effective. Sock didn’t even have the chance to break back.
To the American’s credit, Sock served well in the second and forced a tie-break, which he then managed to peg back to 4-4. But champions become champions by winning big points and Federer won the next three, including a sublime winner at 5-4.
And that was that. It perhaps wasn’t Federer’s finest performance of the year, but in reality it didn’t need to be. He had shown enough glimpses of brilliance to satisfy the crowd and had got through the first test of the week unscathed. There will be more to come but on his own Roger Federer made an ordinary match anything but. It was an honour to watch his genius.