Mumbai: In a span of less than 24 hours, I watched the Roger Federer-John Isner final at Indian Wells three times. This could be put down to the compulsions of an obsessive fan (guily as charged, mi-lord) but that denies the wonderful artistry of Federer's sublime play.
Which is why, regardless of the rankled cynics and the rankings, Federer remains the world's most popular tennis player. In an internet poll last year, he was voted the second-most respected person on the planet -- just behind Nelson Mandela but ahead of Mahatma Gandhi. Even a fan with OCD admits that that encomium is a bit excessive.
Undoubtedly, Federer himself would find it embarrassing. Still, he does have more Facebook fans than his peers and whoever watched the French Open final at Roland Garros last year was amazed at the way the French crowd urged him on to defeat the world's greatest clay courter, Rafael Nadal.
So as 2012 moves into spring, we see another great run from the maestro, the man who many of his contemporaries and seniors have little problem dubbing the greatest tennis player ever. Since his loss to Nadal at the Australian Open and his Davis Cup loss to John Isner, Federer has been the hottest male tennis player on the circuit. He has won three titles, including the first mandatory Masters 1000 at Indian Wells.
Out of pasture
This, in spite of the critics who had put him out to pasture once Novak Djokovic began his amazing run in 2011. Some commentators have even dismissed Federer's victory at the World Tour Finals last year as inconsequential, although the tournament carries just 500 less ATP points than a Grand Slam title. Is that because Federer's biggest rival Rafael Nadal has never won it even once or because the field is limited to the top eight players? But why blame Nadal: he competes assiduously every year as do the others. The problem lies more with the peevish human tendency to snipe at greatness because it exposes your inadequacies.
And then there are those of us who revel in the genius of others. Players like Federer remind us of what humans can achieve and this causes joy, not envy. Why should a brilliant run by Usain Bolt be painful unless you are incapable of appreciating greatness -- the story of the human race in 100 metres? The loss, then, is yours.
Federer masterfully deconstructed Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarterfinals at Indian Wells, not allowing the tall Argentinian to find his rhythm. It was even more incredible to watch Federer aggressively take on Nadal in the semifinals, almost contemptuously dismissing the windy conditions which so disturbed the Spanish great.
In the final, all the aspects of John Isner's game that had bothered Djokovic were effectively and emphatically dealt with by Federer. And it must be said that through most of the tournament, Federer was battling a virus, quite visibly in the opening rounds.
As the tennis world moves from California to Miami, the whole circus starts again. That's one more title for Djokovic to defend and one more final for Nadal to reach. Federer, who has not won a grand slam title since Australia 2010 and lost his No 1 ranking to Nadal who then lost it to Djokovic, is now only about 800 points behind Nadal. The man who was practically put on life support appears to have dismissed himself from the ICU -- without the permission of the obituary writers.
First to the four
Isner said in his speech at the presentation ceremony that every time Federer steps on court, he breaks another record. As it happens, Federer is now the first man to win Indian Wells four times. (I'm not rubbing it in that Federer has 16 Grand Slam titles, more than any other man.) Will he win a Grand Slam again? Perhaps only Federer knows. But whatever happens, this is a fine time to enjoy another fine ride. Unless you're a congenital grumpy of course.