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Feder's last grab for the grail?

Roger Federer continued his comeback by winning Indian Wells. (Georgios Kefalas/Keystone via AP)
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14th May, 2017
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Friday, September 11, 2015, Flushing Meadows, New York. Serena Williams has just won the first set 6-2 in 31 minutes, in her semi-final against Roberta Vinci.

The American is well on her way to brushing past the unheralded Italian to a place in the final, where she is expected to sweep away Vinci’s compatriot, Flavia Pennetta, and become only the sixth player in history to achieve the Grand Slam.

She stands across the net from Vinci as the number one player in the world, the current US Open title-holder and the holder of 21 majors.

Vinci is ranked 43 and is playing her first grand slam semi-final. Physically, technically and historically it is more a mismatch than a match. Serena has won each of their four previous encounters without dropping a set, stands proud at 1.75 metres and 70 kilos, and brings with her the most powerful serve and destructive groundstrokes the women’s game has ever seen. Vinci is 1.64 metres tall, weighs 58 kilos and plays with an old-school slice backhand and retrieves as though her life depends on it.

She has nothing that could possibly hurt Serena.

Serena, however, is carrying a massive handicap – the immeasurable weight of history is sitting on her back and it has been getting heavier with every step forward she takes in the tournament.

After pocketing the first set against Vinci, the soft, hazy dream of the Grand Slam suddenly starts to harden into something very real.

Every deep, loopy, off-pace ball from Vinci’s racquet gives Serena the one thing she doesn’t want – time. Time to think and contemplate the enormity of what is now well within reach and magnify the implications of each and every shot she is about to play.

Finally, it breaks her and she loses the next two sets 4-6, 4-6, along with her shot at sporting immortality. It is the biggest upset in the history of tennis.

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No woman has ever come so close to the Grand Slam without winning it.

Serena Williams serving

2016 was the year the rain fell. Heavily and unexpectedly, breaking droughts across sporting arenas everywhere.

It’s a startling snapshot. 5000-1 outsider Leicester City won their first English Premier League. After 21 years, the Wellington Hurricanes secured their first Super Rugby title. The Western Bulldogs claimed the AFL title after 62 years in the wilderness. Cronulla-Sutherland snared the National Rugby League premiership for the first time since their inception in 1967. After 108 years, the Chicago Cubs took out baseball’s World Series.

Add to the mix, Brexit and Donald Trump’s ascendency to the White House and we can now officially dub 2016 as the year of AYKM? (Are you kidding me?) If AYKM? is something tangible it might look like a fine-grained, shimmering dust, the fallout from a rare collision of energy and matter that occurs when certain celestial bodies align.

Its presence was last confirmed earlier this year when the New England Patriots staged an amazing comeback, overcoming a 25-point third-quarter deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 and claim the Super Bowl.

Since then, things have been relatively quiet. But something big could be brewing. If AYKM? hasn’t quite run its course, there may just still be a little bit of the golden, glimmering stuff floating around to break one more major sporting drought.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady

Jeffrey Beall / CC BY-SA 3.0

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He will turn 36 years of age in August. He is the current Australian Open champion and, with the announcement by Serena Williams that she is pregnant and won’t be competing for the rest of this year, he is now the only person in a position to achieve the most revered feat in tennis – the Grand Slam.

He is Roger Federer and the most loved sportsperson on the planet. Millions have bought in heavily on the Federer stock over the years. It’s an emotional investment where you buy with your heart. There’s been no shortage of analysis examining the combination of aesthetics, technique, and record-breaking results that come wrapped up in a very likable persona. Even to the casual observer, one can see that there’s ‘something’ about Roger.

It’s been 46 years since a man has won the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open in a calendar year. Breaking it right down, all one has to do is win 28 best-of-five sets singles matches at four specific tournaments, played on three different continents. So what’s the big deal?

Here’s the big deal.

1925 was the first year that all four individual slams were officially designated as the ‘majors’ and open to all comers. Deducting six years during World War II (1940-1945), when play was suspended for one or more of the four majors, and deducting the year of 1986, when the Australian Open wasn’t played due to rescheduling, we arrive at a figure of 84 times that it’s been technically possible for either a man or a woman to win the singles Grand Slam.

It’s happened only six times, a success rate of 3.6 per cent.

The honour roll contains just five names and is the most exclusive club in tennis:

Don Budge – 1938
Maureen Connolly – 1953
Rod Laver – 1962 and 1969
Margaret Court – 1970
Steffi Graff – 1988

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Outside of this quintet, only three others have been in the position of entering the last scheduled major of the year, the US Open, having already won the first three, and then fallen at the last hurdle. Australians Jack Crawford in 1933 and Lew Hoad in 1956 were both defeated in the final of the US Open, while Serena was thwarted inexplicably by Vinci in 2015.

The Grand Slam is one of world sport’s holy grails and commands a fabled status that brings with it unimaginable hype and pressure for any player fortunate enough to find themselves occupying this spotlight. It’s a slow burn that builds over the best part of a year and as Serena discovered a few years ago, it’s perhaps more than mere flesh and blood should have to withstand.

So why does Federer, possibly the greatest tennis player of all time, deep in the twilight of his illustrious career, have a genuine shot at pulling this off this year?

At the end of May, all roads in tennis will lead to Paris and the French Open, the second leg of the Grand Slam. Federer has won it once and beaten four times in the final by his great rival Rafael Nadal, who has won it an astounding nine times and owns it.

If this were a ‘normal’ year, Federer would be considered an outside chance of winning. But this isn’t a normal year. The shadow of AYKM? still lingers and a sequence of events has created an opening for Federer that six months prior didn’t exist.

When Federer injured his knee in his Wimbledon semi-final against Milos Raonic last year, it was about the worst thing that could have happened to him. Or so it seemed.

He required surgery. An enforced six-month hiatus from the game removed him from the bubble of the circuit, delivering a perspective that allowed him to relax, reflect and reacquaint himself with the pure pleasure of playing, with nothing to prove. For a naturally gifted player of his immense ability, this was significant and lies at the heart of Roger’s renaissance.

Federer rediscovered his love of the game in its purest sense. He came back to the simple joy of hitting a tennis ball without any thought of consequences.

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It was there for the world to see in the spine-tingling fifth set of this year’s Australian Open final against Nadal, where Federer rewrote the ending of a familiar script. The lopsided rivalry between Nadal and Federer is the one major question mark that hangs heavily over Federer’s legacy.

The left-handed Nadal has developed a blueprint that he has applied assiduously over the years to beat Federer. In simple terms, it involves hitting his heavily top-spun forehand to Federer’s one-handed backhand. The ball kicks up high out of Federer’s hitting zone, pinning him back and forcing him to defend with a slice backhand, or take a higher risk and play a topspin backhand. Anything short of perfect depth is then mercilessly punished by a crushing Nadal forehand.

It’s not a pretty picture for Federer fans, but one they’ve been forced look at over and over again.

Rafael Nadal

Mike Egerton/PA via AP

Nursing a thigh strain and down a break early in the fifth set, it seemed Federer was destined to lose again to Nadal in another high-stakes match. Looking back at the video, one can see that Federer is not only totally engaged in the battle, but also extremely composed.

Federer’s aggression on his backhand had been noted throughout the whole tournament, but its biggest test was always going to come against Nadal. Federer reached that point where he played with nothing to lose. Pure process took over and Federer unleashed a series of backhands taken early, many hit for clean winners, and leaving Nadal’s blueprint in tatters.

Federer’s rejuvenation has been a work in progress since 2014, when he invited Stefan Edberg to join his coaching team. For years, other coaches had tried to convince Federer of playing a more aggressive, net-focussed game. Federer was on board in theory, but his commitment to it seemed patchy – until Edberg, one of his idols, convinced him to embrace it.

This shift has been instrumental in Federer’s evolution as a player well into his 30s and has continued under the stewardship of Edberg’s successor, Ivan Ljubcic.

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Around the same time, he switched to a racquet with a larger head. The transition was a risk and was always going to take a little time, but the promise of a larger sweet spot and an increase in power would be worth it.

Another major piece of the puzzle that may be falling into place for Federer is the current dip in form of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, who both appear to be in a minor state of freefall.

Djokovic’s decline since winning last year’s French Open has been astonishing. A split with coach Boris Becker and subsequently the other remaining members of his team, a noticeable drop in his intensity on court, and some unexpected early-round losses, saw him relinquish his number one ranking to Murray and lose the aura of invincibility that has shrouded him for the best part of the last three years.

Murray, since attaining the number one ranking, has also experienced unexpected early-round losses, as well as some injury problems, and is having to deal with the pressure of expectation that goes with being king of the mountain.

Unlike his rivalry with Nadal, Federer has always more than held his own with both Murray and Djokovic. Djokovic leads Federer head-to-head 23-22 and Federer leads Murray 14-11. Current form would indicate that Federer would be the favourite in a match against either.

Nadal recently secured record tenth titles on the clay at Monte Carlo and Barcelona, as well as a fifth Madrid Open, and is undergoing his own major career comeback from injury and some indifferent form. At times he’s looked unusually vulnerable, but seems to be headed back to his best as he asserts himself on his beloved clay.

The big question here is whether or not Nadal has physically overplayed his hand in his lead up to his climactic assault for a tenth French Open.

roger-federer-rafael-nadal-tennis-australian-open-2017

AAP Image/Lukas Coch

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Since Federer’s victory against Nadal at the Australian Open earlier this year, he went on to beat Nadal twice more in straight sets, the last time in the final of the Miami Masters. This marked the first time that Federer had beaten Nadal four times in a row.

The big proviso being that all four matches were played on a hard court. On clay, the match-up takes a decided turn in the favour of Nadal. However, at this point in time, a Nadal vs Federer match up on the clay of Roland Garros would no longer be automatically considered a lopsided contest in favour of the Spaniard.

Federer’s body has worn better over the years than Nadal’s and he seems to have broken a lot of the mental and tactical shackles of playing him, with his newfound belief in his backhand. And for the first time, in a major role reversal, Federer may have managed to finally lodge himself inside the head of his great rival.

It’s quite possible, of course, that Federer, with Wimbledon on his mind, may end up being skittled in the second round by some little-known with red clay in his veins.

But, if he were to win the French Open, the tennis world would be on alert, with Federer certainly one of the favourites to win Wimbledon. And if that were to occur, listen for the collective, global gasp, as he prepares for an assault on the US Open and the Grand Slam.

Of course, this is pure fantasy and indulgence, but surely one of the attractions of sport is that it mischievously invites such speculation.

In the meantime, we’ve been given some space to dream a little and wait, watch and see if there’s a bit of AYKM? still to fall.