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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 5 March 2021

Federer outplayed at latest corporate service game

Federer looked at me, bounced the ball, and I looked back. It was the moment of truth. It is tempting to think that history was on his side.

Frankly speaking, I don't know what all the fuss is about.

Imagine the scene: on one side of the net, Roger Federer, the Swiss maestro widely regarded as the finest player ever to unzip a racquet cover. On the other side, an occasional player who once reached the finals of the Mayfield mixed doubles' tournament in Sussex, England.

He might have won the trophy if his partner had not double-faulted at a crucial point, but tennis is not really his game. It is hard to know what exactly is his game, but this is not the time to ask.

Federer looked at me, bounced the ball, and I looked back. It was the moment of truth. It is tempting to think that history was on his side.

After all, there's a fellow who has had whole long-winded sentences written by David Foster Wallace about the beauty and purity of his play.

Writing in The New York Times in 2006, Mr Wallace gushed: "It's the finals of the 2005 US Open, Federer serving to Andre Agassi early in the fourth set. There's a medium-long exchange of groundstrokes, one with the distinctive butterfly shape of today's power-baseline game, Federer and Agassi yanking each other from side to side, each trying to set up the baseline winner … until suddenly Agassi hits a hard, heavy cross-court backhand that pulls Federer way out wide to his ad (left) side, and Federer gets to it but slices the stretch backhand short, a couple feet past the service line, which of course is the sort of thing Agassi dines out on, and as Federer's scrambling to reverse and get back to centre, Agassi's moving in to take the short ball on the rise, and he smacks it hard right back into the same ad corner, trying to wrong-foot Federer, which in fact he does …" and on, and on, and on for a couple more hundred words.

Fortunately the writer was not on hand to witness the scene yesterday at Zayed Sports City, but then his long-winded pomposity was not called for, if it ever was. Something pithier would have sufficed, more like Hemingway, for not only was my scene with Federer brief, but it was also brutal. Think Death in the Morning, or A Call to Forehands.

Federer hit the ball to me and I hit it back with a testing backhand slice, the sort that propelled me to the Mayfield finals a few seasons ago. He hit it back, but the next shot was put away, out of reach and out of the champion's sight. He was rocked, and clearly hurting.

True, a cynic might say this was just a coaching session, but as the ball hurtled past him, I could see him thinking "wow" or something unprintable. I ran back to the line, and was ready for the next point.

In my day, sportsmen were untouchable, out of reach, and would certainly never deign to mingle with the masses.

But ironically, as their influence has grown, they have become more accessible.

Federer's coaching session yesterday with an assorted group of journalists and young sporting stars is a good example of how companies such as Mubadala Development, a strategic investment company owned by the Abu Dhabi Government, which is sponsoring the World Tennis Championship, are reaching out to the community.

It is no longer enough just to pay money to put your logo around arenas and on television. An army of consultants has come up with an array of cunning ideas to engage the local population.

Persuading one of the finest tennis players ever to spend 40 minutes hitting balls and chatting about the game is just one way. Corporate hospitality is no longer just about watching games from a box and eating prawn sandwiches.

Everybody now wants access to the dressing rooms, the training grounds, the practice sessions.

Many sponsors try to avoid linking directly with individuals because they are unpredictable.

Few would have thought that Tiger Woods would have made headlines around the world for an incident involving a 4x4, a Swedish wife, a golf club and a fire hydrant, but I guess that is one of the drawbacks.

Linking to a team can be equally troublesome. Liverpool Football Club has Standard Chartered Bank emblazoned all over its shirts but seems unable to score a point.

Federer seems altogether more wholesome and successful. I have to say he was even magnanimous in defeat.

He told us about his love and enthusiasm for tennis, how he practised four hours a day when he was younger, how he eats pasta to avoid food poisoning during a tournament, and still has ambitions in the game.

He wants to add an Olympic gold to his tally of cups and medals, which will doubtless be very good news for the organisers of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

He charmed everybody, including the women and children. My wife seemed even more impressed than my tennis-playing son, remarking that "Roger even looks good in yellow", whatever that means.

And he wants to keep winning Wimbledon "forever".

On yesterday's showing, I would say he is in with a shout, as long as he watches out for those crafty slices down the line - and doesn't eat too much pasta.

Published: December 31, 2010 04:00 AM


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