Shock, horror; yesterday he even learned not to cry. It seemed fitting that Andy Roddick’s challenge had left him too exhausted, too mentally drained and too emotionally shot even to even offer his usual trick of watering the Centre Court lawn with his tears.
That is what number 15 and sporting history took out of him. Never before has he had to delve so feverishly into his endless reserves of champion’s resolve to win a grand slam title. Never before has he looked more like a warrior than a wizard. And never before should all those tears have rightfully been reserved for his almost heroic, but ultimately broken opponent.
To break the seemingly unbreakable, Federer offered a four-and-a-quarter-hour snapshot of his peerless career; the brilliance, the glory but, most of all, the guts. He had to. Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras had come to pay homage to their successor. And, as they chatted to him afterwards, did the icons perhaps even recognise their superior?
Sampras did. The best ever, he proclaimed Federer. When the seven-time champion turned up in the Royal Box, Federer heard the applause at the changeover, walked out to serve and gave his illustrious guest a nod of acknowledgement.
“I said 'hello’. I thought 'I don’t want to be rude’. But when I saw him, I did get more nervous.” Typical Federer. The only champion who worries about being polite to visitors during a game.
Sampras was suitably impressed. “He makes it look so effortless,” he cooed. Only yesterday, in what has to be considered the equal of last year’s unreal contest between Rafael Nadal and Federer – if not quite in quality, then at least in terms of the longevity of drama in that incredible last set – it was a tribute to Roddick’s effort that the Swiss really did look as if he was forced to labour harder than ever before.
This was a test of nerve. Not full of monumental rallies like last year but, as Federer put it, more a throwback to the big serve-and-volley fests of yore. That last set could have come from a Hollywood western. Who would be the last man standing? There were moments when you swore it would be Roddick. He seemed more aggressive than Federer, whose date with history had seemed to pacify him.
After all, it may have been the American’s best-ever performance. Think of it; 10 times you have to serve to stay in the match against the greatest player of all-time, the man who has routinely tortured you, and 10 times you do not blink. But when he lost at the 11th attempt it was not just because his body, wearied from a fortnight of rare battles, at last betrayed him. It was because Federer was too tough for the streetfighter.
That is what gave the Swiss the most satisfaction. “I came through a match I couldn’t control,” he explained. “If I’d gone two sets to love down with the way Andy was serving, I would have been in a very difficult situation.” Yes, a losing one.
So let’s return to the key moment of the match. Federer, a set and 6-2 down, is facing four set points in the second set tie-break. What happens next?
First point saved: an exquisite cross-court pass picked up on the half-volley to leave Roddick floundering. Second point, an unreturned serve; third point, an ace; fourth point, forcing Roddick to volley wide out of his comfort zone.
Here was Federer in crisis, growing not shrinking. Then the kill; a beautiful cross-court backhand chipped past Roddick to earn the mini-break before applying the pressure on set point to force Roddick to strike a final backhand long.
How long will that torment Roddick for? For ever and a day, probably. On court afterwards, the ever-gracious Federer tried to remind his rival that he had suffered a similar defeat to Nadal last year and come back stronger.
“Yeah, but you’d already won five,” Roddick muttered inconsolably.
But even then, he could not bring himself to hate his conqueror. No-one can. Because as Sampras suggested, you can only celebrate a champion who is as humble and gracious off court as he is murderous on it. We are talking about a sportsman, and a sporting achievement, for the ages.