A Quaver In His Voice

Basel, Final

(3) Federer d. Nishikori, 6/1 6/3

Roger Federer has won his second title of 2011, his fifth career Basel title, and 68th overall. In the scheme of things, you would imagine that this one has little to recommend it beyond being by far the most recent, but Federer’s tears afterwards demonstrated otherwise. It’s been that kind of year. He didn’t blubber – that he reserves for Rod Laver Arena or Rod Laver’s shoulder – but when it came time for he and Kei Nishikori to dispense medals to the ball-kid honour-guard, he was audibly choked. It isn’t so long since he stood among them. Afterwards, as per the tradition, he scoffed pizza among them. Winning Basel has clearly come to mean more to Federer as the seasons roll by, a quality it probably only shares with Wimbledon. The latter is hallowed, and the former is home. Now that he has cleared 30, those tears were as valedictory as the quaver in his voice when he promised to return next year.

There was a tiny moment in last years final when, desperate to break Novak Djokovic in the deciding set, Federer had muttered something idly to an attendant ball-kid, only to reduce the lad to nodding worship. Today he needed no such help, since his mere presence had apparently done the same to Nishikori. Nishikori had been frank in assessing yesterday’s win over Djokovic, confessing that he’d like to do it again when the world No.1 was fully fit. Nevertheless, the young Japanese had displayed little mercy in crushing his overwhelmingly more experienced opponent, the way so many others don’t when presented with the same opportunity. Most players’ initial response to receiving a gift-horse is to conduct a thorough dental examination, and then shrug disconsolately as the horse is led away. And it’s not as though Djokovic was rendered immobile, like Fabio Fognini at Roland Garros. Nishikori was just fearless.

Today’s final told a different tale. Nishikori had also mentioned how thrilled he was to be playing Federer. He probably hoped that the thrill would pass quickly, however, so that he could get down to playing tennis. I would lying if I said he never really got over it, since he looked to be hitting his straps when Federer stepped up to serve at 5/3 in the second set. Nishikori even gained his first break point. He didn’t win it, of course, and on its own it is hardly a missed chance worth ruing. His run had conceivably come too late. Afterwards he just looked pleased to be there.

He had, after all, been given the best seat in the house while Federer delivered one of his renowned beat-downs, and I sometimes suspect that this is what young players secretly hope will happen when they finally get a shot at their erstwhile idol. They want to know just how it feels to be utterly manhandled by the greatest player ever, how that forehand actually feels when he’s nailing it. In order for Nishikori – substitute Tomic or Harrison or whoever – to beat Federer, he would honestly have to perform well below his best. For their first encounter with him wouldn’t they prefer him at his best? Isn’t that part of why they’re so thrilled even before the first ball is struck? It was a measure of Jonas Bjorkman’s eternal boyishness that he felt the same even as a 34 year old, in a Wimbledon semifinal.

I don’t know how it felt, but Federer’s forehand looked again like the most ferocious shot in the sport, and his backhand wasn’t far shy of that. He moved well, and the serve remains as incisive as ever. He will move on to the Paris Indoors presumably invigorated, and with his house in order, to begin yet another assault on the Masters event that remains a strange gap in this resume. With Nadal and Soderling convalescing elsewhere, and Djokovic and Murray doubtful starters, he is arguably, once more, the man to beat.

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