The Most Beautiful Tennis Match Ever Played

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Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

ROGER’S MELBOURNE MAGIC – A MATCH FOR THE AGES

Half-volley winners while twisting backwards from the baseline, leaping backhand overheads, spontaneous flicks that astound, laser drives, imposing serves – Roger Federer was on fire. His 1:30 dismantling of the sadly over-matched Tomas Berdych was a tour de force like no other.

His subtle winners and power groundies sizzled – his angles severe, his balance flawless, his movement poetic. His graceful sprints were bold busts.  The aging icon rudely spit at his 35 years. He started fast, and then his will and his considerable pride kicked in. He refused to blink. Here was an artist in a zone that had never before  descended onto Rod Laver Arena.

Picasso in sneakers. Free-flowing and gravity defying, Roger’s imagination took flight. Tonight there were no limits. Fans gasped.

Simply put, in my 54 years covering this game, I’d never seen a performance like this. Not from the oh-so-graceful Bjorn Borg, nor intuitive John McEnroe; not from the passionate Jimmy Connors, nor bounding Boris Becker. Not from explosive Andre Agassi nor from Pistol Pete. And certainly not from Rafa, Nole or Sir Andy.

Tonight, Switzerland’s finest athlete ascended. Never before had that silly, but accurate ditty – “Federer is better-er”  – rung more true. Yes, this was merely a third round encounter against a slightly leaden, long familiar foe whom Roger had beaten five straight times. But, dare I claim that his 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 win was the most beautiful match ever played by man or woman on this amazing planet.

Sure, the Isner vs. Mahut Wimbledon marathon was nearly ten hours longer. The 1981 Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon final was far more historic. Nadal’s 2008 win over Roger in the  Wimbledon dusk was far more heroic. There have been hundreds – make that thousands – of matches with spicier plot lines.

But what a canvas this man painted! From start to finish we relished his breathtaking display – at once powerful and inventive, seemingly effortless – almost erie. Throughout, it was submerged in a prevailing grace. And, more than anything, almost every stroke sang of beauty.

And, remember, this fellow, who is 35, had been off chilling at his waterfront glass chalet for six months. So one imagined that Roger might just be saying, “You forgot I was a genius? Well, remember this.”

The man may not win his 18th Grand Slam when this tourney ends in nine days. He could even fall in the next round to the considerable Kei Nishikori. But on this singular night, this magical Melbourne night, tennis’ greatest artist gave us something special – a masterpiece – not to be hung in some dusty museum, but to be cherished as an exquisite memory for the ages.

No, we will not call the master’s effort a perfect performance. It just seemed that way.