Came Sunday Jan 27, 2008 and the world of tennis got a new winner. No doubt Novak “Djoker” Djokovic has got everything in him to emerge as a champion, but let him earn it. We are in no hurry. Nonetheless Novak has provided us the much needed change because since Australian Open 2005 Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have shared all of the 11 possible Grand Slam titles between themselves and tennis aficionados around the globe, though enthralled by Federer’s artistic and almost poetic display of tennis and awed by Nadal’s brutal, hard hitting, street smart brand of tennis, were murmuring about the predictability these two gifted men had brought to the game. Against this backdrop Novak’s win is even more remarkable. Quite expectedly Federer and Nadal were heading towards another final clash and tennis lovers were talking of monotony. But they were in for a, rather two, mighty surprises. First it was an unheralded Frenchman, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga who unsettled Rafa with his immense power. Add a nickname as mighty as Muhammad Ali and one can conjecture Rafa’s bewilderment after receiving those powerful punches, I mean groundstrokes. In 2006, it was Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus, 2007 took Speedy Gonzalez to new heights and this year it is Tsonga. Australian open is having a new poster boy every year! However, if Nadal’s defeat came as a shock, seeing Novak brushing aside Roger in straight sets was even more shocking. Make no mistake. Three years ago Roger lost exactly at the same stage of this tournament to that mercurial, racket breaker Marat Safin. But there was no pain in that defeat because Safin played unbelievable tennis on that night. (How I wish he had the cool head of Roger...he would have been deadly..alas..). This time, though, as I said earlier, we are aware of Novak’s potential but more than that we are confident of Federer’s ability to produce his best at the crucial moments and on that fateful Friday, under the closed roof of Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne Park, what we saw was almost anti-climactic. We are not used to see a Federer serve getting broken while serving for the opening set of the match, we are strangers to a Roger Federer squandering a 2-point lead on his opponents serve and even more to such a vulnerable Federer forehand. This was what was more shocking, not the defeat, but the manner. He was clearly unsettled by , another Serb(a Serbian coup against a Swiss King?? ), make a note of him too, Janko Tipsarevic, in the third round who took him the distance, teasing and tormenting him for 4 hours and 27 minutes, by his thundering groundstrokes and tenacious serve, adding to the doubts a pre-tournament virus may have infested in Roger’s game. It would be hasty to conclude anything just now, but certainly over the course of last one year quite a few players have displayed the quality to challenge and unsettle him on a continuous basis. Nalbandian certainly raises his game against Roger and even beat him twice in a row at the end of last year. Federer lost to Guillermo Canas thrice in a row. Rafa has kept him on his toes (twice 15-40 down in the fifth set..remember that Wimbledon Final last year.) Add Richard Gasquet and (shall we??) Janko Tipsarevic to this list and suddenly there is hope. Roger will be 27 this year while Novak, Rafa , Gasquet , Tipsarevic are all in their early twenties. That promises exciting tennis in the coming years. These players have so differing styles, their own unique approach to the game that they promise to leave an indelible stamp of their own on the canvas of world tennis. Here we realize Roger Federer’s contribution towards the advancement of the game. Just look what a master craftsman like Roger can do for a sport. He just hasn’t won all those Grand Slams in such a short span nor it is only about his dominance for last four and half years. I think it is about the ability of a genius to single handedly (don’t ask whether forehandedly or backhandedly) raise the game to an altogether new level. Because when you dream of beating a certain Roger Federer you better reach his level first. In this process the game evolves and reaches a new high. Same happened when Williams sisters rocked women’s tennis by their, hitherto unknown in women circuit, brand of power tennis. Today that has become the benchmark.
By no means is this an obituary to Roger. On the contrary I am quite eager and excited to see his response. The year 2008 will decide where Roger ends up and how he will be remembered by the posterity. As a tennis player who dominated the field first and when challengers came, faded away or as an all-time great who rose to each and every challenge thrown to him, unruffled by the temporary setbacks came back strongly and continued his march towards immortality and of course towards that elusive title at Paris.