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Sporting Life

Totally devoted fans? Roger that, mate

Federer disposes of Berdych, displaying an ability to turn back time, even at 34

There is a respectful quiet on Tuesday afternoon in Melbourne because on Rod Laver Arena a familiar Swiss is holding court. This is not a crowd in attendance, this is Roger Federer's personal choir. Men will later shout "I love you" and now, even before he hits a shot, they are applauding his resume. Seventeen Grand Slam wins, six titles won last year, 38 Grand Slam semi-finals reached - now 39 after his 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, 6-4 win- takes a while to recite.

Across the aisle from me, Spencer Clements, an Englishman, is whistling in admiration. "Ruthless," he says later of Federer. A few seats from him sits Rosalind Lai, a Melbourne resident but from Singapore. "He's very good-looking," she grins and "humble, too." An international love fest is happening here.

Roughly 10 rows down, three greying Indian sisters in elegantly worn saris are huddled together in delight. Smita Gogate, 64, Lalita Angre, 68, and Geeta Pandit, 70, have flown here from Mumbai to watch the touring Indians play cricket and Federer play tennis.

"We are die-hard fans," they say. "We bought tickets for the quarter-finals and were sure Federer would be there." Angre thrusts her phone at me with pictures of the Swiss and his family. Gogate looks at me searchingly when I ask what she likes about Federer and laughs: "What's there not to like?"

Roger Federer combines poise, balance and grace in his follow-through to a backhand in his Australian Open quarter-final against Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic at the Australian Open yesterday. Federer dropped his opening service game but won 7-
Roger Federer combines poise, balance and grace in his follow-through to a backhand in his Australian Open quarter-final against Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic at the Australian Open yesterday. Federer dropped his opening service game but won 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, 6-4. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

People want Federer to win but part of the pleasure lies in how he wins and so far that grace has been elusive. But like a great tenor, Federer is only clearing his throat. Finally, in the first-set tie-breaker, a forehand humscross-court and a backhand slithers down the line.Anda bewildered Berdych stands with a hand on his hip.

Poor Tomas Berdych. He is the underdog, a tribe usually cherished by Australians, but for Federer they make every exception. When Berdych is down two sets to love, the crowd still hollers: "Go, Roger." This is grounds to complain under the Unfair Crowd Practices Act.

But the sizeable Czech, who suggests he could a fell a tree with a single stroke, is not intimidated. In their last two Grand Slam meetings, the US Open 2012 and Wimbledon 2010, he slew Federer and he starts by breaking the Swiss. Federer replies with a point that includes a sliced backhand, a topspun backhand and a forehand cross-court and it is too much variety for the Czech to repel. He is broken back.

The crowd cheers but it is restless for the tennis is tight and tense and Berdych is retrieving too well for Federer's liking. The Swiss misses a routine forehand volley that elicits a collective groan. Even when he flicks the ball to ball boys, a game he plays, his aim is off. Nerves are interrupting fluency. Odder still, he is audibly grunting and this is almost unseemly - the artist as labourer.

Federer is not The Greatest, for there is no such thing in sport. What he is, unarguably, is a unique experience and Simon Liston, 33, who checks up on Federer's progress on his phone while at work yesterday, will attest to that. He runs a pizzeria here, admires Federer yet has been too busy to have ever seen him live. But he says: "He's a pure player. His game is the most interesting to watch. And aesthetically he is one of the better sportsmen of all time across all sports."

People want Federer to win but part of the pleasure lies in how he wins and so far that grace has been elusive. But like a great tenor, Federer is only clearing his throat. Finally, in the first-set tie-breaker, a forehand hums cross-court and a backhand slithers down the line. And a bewildered Berdych stands with a hand on his hip.

If the first set takes "energy out of Tomas" as Federer says, then it also feeds the Swiss confidence. He looks another man. He raids the net (24 of 29 points won), swipes forehand winners (20 in total) with an easy authority and moves with the light step of the assured.

It is often said Federer now plays as well as he ever did but it is impossible to prove. Some say his serve and forehand lack a consistent snap, others insist his speed hasn't diminished. Either way, his ability to compensate for any degrading skill and keep making Grand Slam semi-finals at 34 is outrageous. He offers the illusion of turning back time and earlier in the day an old sage confirms it.

Sitting behind a desk at Melbourne Park, Ken Rosewall, a slight figure, signs copies of his book, Muscles. Now 81, dressed neatly in long-sleeved shirt and trousers, the Australian won his first Open at 18 and his fourth at 37. One might say he aged brilliantly and now he says of Federer: "At 34, he plays like a much younger man."

Ask what stands out for him about the Swiss and the Australian replies, "his footwork". Then, he adds, "as one of his millions of fans I hope he can win a few more Slams". Considering Novak Djokovic awaits Federer in the semis, this may be unlikely.

But that is for another day. On this day, when Federer punches a final volley, Clements whistles and the three Indian ladies spring up triumphantly. Gogate says the person next to her had wanted five sets to get her money's worth, but three was fine with her. "Tension," she clarifies, she did not want.

Berdych exits but almost no one else leaves the stadium as Federer chats with commentator Jim Courier. At one corner, at the players' entrance to the court, a red carpet is being unrolled. It is for an Australian player of the 1950s, Rex Hartwig, who is about to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. But maybe the faithful thought it was in honour of Federer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2016, with the headline 'Totally devoted fans? Roger that, mate'. Print Edition | Subscribe