THE world cup is bubbling up nicely – heaven forbid, even England fans think their team has a chance now that Germany have departed – but, as the terms and conditions on the advertisements put it, there are other sports available. Wimbledon starts this week, which means that one of the greatest athletes on the planet will be back in London town. Only Italian has the range of superlatives to describe a champion of Roger Federer’s quality. ‘Campionissimo’, champion of champions, the Italians would call him.
A ‘Campionissimo’ is not merely defined by number of wins in the book, impressive though they are in Federer’s case (20 grand slams and counting), but by the style of the winning and the dignity of the victor. A ‘Campionissimo’ has permanence and class; triumphs are measured in casual grace not beads of sweat. The word is sparsely used: Italians view Fausto Coppi, their great cycling champion of the 40s and 50s, as a ‘Campionissimo’, but not Gino Bartali, Coppi’s great rival who was at least his equal. No one can quite explain why. Coppi was a flawed character but a genius on a bike and, after the War, he captured Italy’s spirit of defiance and gave the nation back its pride. Very few champions outside Italy would earn the right to be called a ‘Campionissimo’, but Federer is certainly one.
Increasingly, in the twilight of his career, Federer is narrowing his sights. There are two Roger Federers these days: the champion, who is still sharp enough to win a sixth Australian Open title earlier this year, and the ‘Campionissimo’, who will come to Wimbledon this week as the favourite to win his ninth singles title at the age of 36. Like Pete Sampras before him, Federer is a different player when he steps onto Wimbledon’s centre court. He knows it – how else could he get away with wearing a white blazer with a gold-embossed ‘RF’ onto court? – and his opponent knows it. Anyone with the temerity to challenge Federer on his beloved centre court has to battle history as well as the most complete tennis player of all time. This is Federer’s home and his opponent is merely a guest passing through. “Goodbye, thank you very much for coming.”
There is a happy fusion too between Wimbledon and its greatest men’s champion. Wimbledon can certainly be fussy but it is mostly fussy in the right places: the all-white dress code, the ban on courtside advertising, the break on the middle Sunday. If you win the men’s singles at Wimbledon, the defence of your title will start at 1pm on the first Monday in July a year on. It can be written into the diary. The women’s champion will start at the same time the following day. Players of Federer’s stature might be able to influence the order of play, but sponsors and television companies have to bow to tradition and rightly so. Compare and contrast with the frenetic made-for-TV finale of the US Open.
Federer loves the formality of the tournament, the familiar rhythms and landmarks. Each day, on his way to the centre court, he will walk past the honours board which has his name etched on it eight times in gold, past the trophy cabinet and the prize that, of course, he has won more than anyone else. Yet only the privileged few get to witness another of Federer’s Wimbledon rituals. It might be Friday or Saturday evening, but once he has qualified for the second week of the tournament, the Swiss visibly relaxes. He has time to talk and so his interview with the press - conducted in any one of his four languages, English, German, French and Italian – ranges far and wide. He will discuss the state of the game, the state of his game, the weather, his potential challengers, the abiding attraction of Wimbledon, the fear of retirement and, this year, doubtless the world cup; he would have a thoughtful view on Brexit, if anyone asked. It is a virtuoso performance from a champion utterly at ease with himself, his talent and his place in the world.
There is no visible sign of Federer slowing down just yet; his footwork, always a joy, is as nimble as ever, his stroke-making just as sublime and his service just as fluent. But not even Federer can defy time for much longer. So cast aside the world cup for an afternoon and catch him while you can, a true ‘Campionissimo’ at play.
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