In remembering the spectacular evisceration of the 2012 Wimbledon final a day after the fact, the first thing that comes to mind is definitely not Andy Murray winning the opening set. Actually, in light of what happened afterward, it almost seems unbelievable — that Murray had actually managed to take six games to Federer’s four; that he was winning the match, at least for a little while. Because the rest of the final was not close, and nobody — least of all Murray — seemed to believe that Fed could be beaten.
At 30 years old, Federer has four years on Rafael Nadal, five on Murray, and five on the current best tennis player in the world, Novak Djokovic. As such, he plays the game in a different way than those three do: differently than Nadal and Murray, who are long and powerful, consummate athletes, and differently than Djokovic, the speedy demon and flawless technician. What Federer does is still tennis; it still involves putting the ball where his opponents can’t reach it. But he’s taken the element of psychological warfare that has always been a part of his game and made it into the centerpiece. It used to be that Federer was a stoic paragon of efficiency, disheartening his opponents with supreme confidence. Now, Federer has become a torturer.
You could see it in the way Murray broke down over the course of yesterday’s match, and it’s no coincidence that the only set he won was the first. With remarkable precision, Fed has found a way to place his returns in that horrible area between unreachable and returnable, so that Murray spent the entirety of the last three sets yesterday seeming to just miss, over and over. He would turn and the ball would be behind him, or he’d play an angle and Fed would bisect it, outdoing him with an even tighter shot. Where Murray would fire 130-mph serves and try to force his will on the style of play, Federer would subvert his opponent’s eagerness.
This created a steadily worsening dynamic for Murray as the match wore on. Federer constantly distanced his service from Murray, but in a way suggesting that if the underdog just tried a little harder, maybe he could get there. And so he tried harder, and he played stupider, and like the urban legend about getting stuck in quicksand, the more vigorously he fought, the more tangled and submerged he became. Watching Murray’s confidence leak out with every tantalizingly close winner of Federer’s, you could recognize a deliberateness, like with a dog and a stick. Considering Federer’s game, the control created by that withholding is an essential element, but instead of creating enjoyment, it seeds an existential crisis.
If you had to pick a specific element of psychological warfare, Sunday’s match called to mind the mythological Chinese water torture. Federer’s game at 30 years old is a perfect drip-drip-drip that you feel like maybe you can just stop or overpower. Except, with every drip, you get crazier, and then eventually the match caves in and there’s Federer, grinning with a bottle of champagne.
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