Open Minded

Regular guy Roger Federer knows all about the extraordinary

Federer approaches record 30th Grand Slam final hoping future stars have room to grow

On Rod Laver Arena, under a closed roof, Roger Federer as expected produced a performance of impeccable variety. He spoke on trophy cabinets, air-conditioning, blisters, Chung Hyeon, the women's final, what first Slams mean and a holiday in the Maldives. He gets applauded even for that.

It was an altogether more substantive spectacle than the 62 minutes he spent playing, before Chung, his toe torn and heart broken, retired at 1-6, 2-5. A handful of idiots booed but the majority of the crowd warmly sent the Korean on his sad way. He has come too far this Open, run too long, fought too hard to disappoint even in retirement.

The evening was fluttering with anticipation for tennis' young Professor was to meet its greying Dean. Chung is a student of Djokovician tennis, who - as the New York Times reported - played childhood matches against his brother who impersonated Nadal and now finally got a first taste of Federer. He was broken in the first game so we cannot say it was fun.

The romance in this fairy tale ran out quickly. Federer clipped forehands cross-court at different speeds and chipped short backhands and if Chung knows the language of tennis then the Swiss speaks his own dialect.

Federer is in his 30th Grand Slam final and of course it is a record. He seems to like the idea of firsts. One list doing the rounds was of the five largest age differences in Grand Slam semi-finals. Federer-Chung, divided by 14 years and 284 days, was fourth on the list. Federer, 36, is the only old chap on the list to have beaten his younger foe. First again.

Tomorrow he will attempt to be the first man to reach 20 singles Slam titles and he will have to defeat Marin Cilic, a friend who he met by chance in the Maldives in November. Of course they played. But why they carried rackets to an island on vacation tells you about such men. Tennis runs in their capillaries.

Cilic is tall, bearded, has the gentle manner of a priest at confessional but hits the ball with a flat violence. It will be a final of fine margins. Federer leads 8-1 but head-to-heads over 10 years are overstated for men change, age and grow.

Sport is not exactly the monastic life for it is filled with bloated egos, spitting coaches, name-calling and controversy. Some people like it, some accept it, but Federer is the antidote for those who prefer respect. In his normality lies his attraction.

Federer spoke thoughtfully on Cilic and Chung, and it was possibly his finest act of the night. He might rather enjoy being tennis' preacher, but he takes its role very seriously.

He could have said Cilic was a fine player and let it be. Instead he explained that "I definitely think him winning the US Open (in 2014), like Stan (Wawrinka) winning here a few years ago, it gave them great belief they can do it. If the big moments come about, that they can attain this level. Not easily, but they can get there from time to time."

He praised the Croat for being "professional" and said "on the court, he's a winner. You can see it in the way he behaves on the court. He's there to win and not just to be there. Sometimes you see other players you feel like they're happy to have made the quarters."

Sport is not exactly the monastic life for it is filled with bloated egos, spitting coaches, name-calling and controversy. Some people like it, some accept it, but Federer is the antidote for those who prefer respect. In his normality lies his attraction.

A critic might accuse him of being a well-mannered egoist who enjoys the crowd's embrace during the on-court interviews, but he gives to his audience like few champions, he makes an effort, he shares, he lets people in, he makes us understand he's a regular fellow with kids who, well, just happens to be slightly adept with a racket.

At one point in the press conference, a Korean journalist asked for an appraisal of Chung and Federer immediately understood that this matters, to Korea, to Chung, to tennis, and so he gave a 259-word reply.

Roger Federer hitting a forehand on the run in yesterday's semi-final against Chung Hyeon of South Korea. The defending champion was leading 6-1, 5-2 when blisters caused his opponent to retire. The Federer-Cilic final tomorrow will be a replay of last year's Wimbledon final, won by the Swiss.PHOTO: REUTERS

He reiterated an old point about expectation and the danger of labelling athletes. Instead of enjoying their journeys we tag young players as great and then only shrug when they fulfil their potential. We can make the incredible mundane.

"I think," he said, "he's going to be a very good player. I don't like to put too much pressure on players by saying they're going to win everything because I don't think it's fair.

"A lot of experts... said I was going to be world No. 1, win everything. In a way it's funny and cool, but it's not so cool in hindsight. Afterwards, anything you achieve is normal. I find it disappointing. Getting to No. 1, winning Grand Slams, winning Masters 1000s, it ain't normal. It's extraordinary."

It was a rainy night and a sad one, for a young man was unable to show an older man who he really was. This is part of tennis, isn't it, people lining up to show Federer they can beat him? Tomorrow comes Cilic's turn and he has the ability, but he will not have the crowd. This may be the land of the underdog, but those are Federer's parishioners.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2018, with the headline 'Regular guy Roger knows all about the extraordinary'. Print Edition | Subscribe