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OPINION - Farewell to Federer, the departing great who always surprised me

 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

One last time. Roger Federer will tie his laces tight, check his headband is perfectly centred and walk onto court this evening at the O2 for his final professional tennis match.

If you can’t spend the day watching highlights of his greatest-ever victories — or what I call a typical Friday — allow me to describe the only point you need to know.

It was in some ways an unremarkable rally. There was no shot between the legs, no last-ditch volley or that lob smash he invented. At 25 strokes it was long for Federer, who doesn’t like to prolong his opponent’s pain.

Midway through yet another US Open semi-final and after a series of immaculately timed groundstrokes, Federer earns a short ball. He takes four steps to his left before whipping an ‘inside out’ forehand for a winner, leaving then world number 6 Nikolay Davydenko stranded. This was the summer of 2006, better known as Peak Fed.

There is a certain skill in defeating an opponent through surprise — a football playmaker’s no-look pass, say. All warfare is based on deception. But there is something more satisfying still.

That is the ability to do exactly what your adversary knows you are going to do, but execute so well that they are powerless to stop you.

This was the Federer of 2004 to 2007, an era in which he won 11 of the 16 major titles on offer. There is total and utter dominance over the field, and then there is whatever that is. Yet the strange thing about Federer’s quarter-century career is how short that glorious period was. And to be blunt, how long ago. George W. Bush was in the White House and Arsenal completed a league season unbeaten.

As a boy feeling my way through adolescence, Federer provided me with more than Slam titles. He was my personal Pax Americana, guaranteeing order in a chaotic world. His subsequent relative decline meant our relationship had to change. As Federer grew more fragile, I liked him less. If 13-year-old me had been in the market for shanked forehands and inconsistent results, I’d have become a Marat Safin fan.

A multipolar world, largely dominated by Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, followed. But then, aged 35 and not long after a six-month layoff, Federer reached the 2017 Australian Open final. He played well, but found himself a break down in the fifth set.

Unbelievable, I despaired. How can I be 28 and still be watching Federer lose to Nadal in Grand Slam finals? And then, something happened. He broke back. More than that, he wrestled back the historical narrative, winning the final five games to secure his first grand slam title since 2012.

I won’t say this victory made up for those post-lapsarian years of toil. But I will concede — it was nice to be reminded that yes, it is okay to be surprised every now and then.

In other news...

It’s the fiscal equivalent of your annoying little brother crowing “Not touching — can’t get mad!” The Government’s decision to forbid the OBR from publishing its independent forecasts is as dim-witted as it sounds. As the economist Duncan Weldon points out, the Chancellor is not merely committing to spend up to a couple of hundred billion pounds on an emergency energy support package, but unveiling a not-so-mini budget including sweeping and permanent changes to taxation.

So when Kwasi Kwarteng sits down all eyes will turn to the Institute for Fiscal Studies for its forecasts. The Bank of England will keep raising interest rates and the bond markets will take note.

Meanwhile, all the Government will have achieved is to undermine its own credibility and further signal it is prepared to spend only a portion of its time in the reality-based community.