Domination came easier then

Very  soon  after  Federer  won  Wimbledon  in  July  2003,  Peter  Smith  opened  his  email  and  was  surprised  to  see  a  message  from  the  new champion himself.

Published: 22nd September 2021 06:28 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd September 2021 02:30 PM   |  A+A-

Christopher Clarey

Christopher Clarey

By Express News Service

BENGALURU: Very  soon  after  Federer  won  Wimbledon  in  July  2003,  Peter  Smith  opened  his  email  and  was  surprised  to  see  a  message  from  the  new champion himself. It was about Peter Carter, Smith’s longtime pupil and confidant. “Roger said, ‘Every time I play well, or I play a good shot I think of Carts upstairs. I look up and know Carts would be looking down on me from above, and that he’d  be  proud  of  me,’ ”  Smith  said.  

“Roger wanted  to  let  me  know,  I  think, that  he  credited  Peter  with  where he was at, and he was committed to being the best player he could be from then on.”

Nearly  twenty  years  later,  Smith  still  chokes  up  about  that  note. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2011 and is no longer able to work or instruct at the same pace. “It’s very long- term, and I’m a long way down the track,” Smith said. But Smith savors his memories of Carter, which are still vivid, and  knows how much Federer’s success would have meant to their friend.

“Roger really made up his mind that he was going to be what Carts told him he could be: the best player on the planet, not just the most talented or most gifted player on the planet, but the best,” Smith said. The paradox was that because of Federer’s new maturity and mission,  Smith’s  most  successful  protégé,  the  hometown  player  he  had helped  develop  into  a  precocious  champion,  would  definitively  lose his edge.

But  Lleyton  Hewitt,  a  born  scrapper,  was  not  about  to  surrender his era without a fight. When Federer and the Swiss Davis Cup team arrived in Melbourne for a semifinal in September 2003, Hewitt was not just prepared but inspired.

Hewitt had slipped from No 1 to No 7 in the rankings after failing to reach the semifinals of any Grand Slam tournament in 2003. He had lost in the first round of Wimbledon as defending champion to the low-profile, high-altitude Croatian Ivo Karlovi, who stands six foot eleven. He had lost in the quarterfinals of the US Open to Juan Carlos Ferrero in part because of a hip problem.

But Hewitt was determined to salvage his season, and the Davis Cup was both his opportunity and his passion. In Australia, the Davis Cup has long been more than a mere sports competition. It once played a role in nation building: demonstrating remote Australia’s can-do spirit to a faraway world in the 1950s and 1960s with an evolving, seemingly inexhaustible supply of net-rushing talent under its obsessive and territorial captain, Harry Hopman —  a former sportswriter, of all things.

In that period, the Davis Cup was still close in prestige to individual events like the Grand Slam tournaments, and from 1950 to 1967 the Australians won the Cup fifteen times, defeating the United States in the final on nine of those occasions. Domination came easier then. The reigning champion did not need to start from scratch each season but instead received a bye to the final as the other nations played off during the season to determine a challenger.

The reigning champion also had the advantage of hosting the final, known as the “challenge round.” Traveling from Europe or the United States to Australia in those years was draining enough, but the challengers then had to face great players like Frank Sedgman, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, or John Newcombe with roaring crowds behind them.

It was a stacked deck, and so it remained until 1981, when the challenge round was abolished and a sixteen-team, four-round World Group was established.Though Australia’s victories became rarer, the cultural value of the Davis Cup still ran deep. Federer understood this because of his conversations with Carter, who had daydreamed as a boy of playing in the Cup for Australia. He had to settle for being Switzerland’s unofficial Davis Cup captain, albeit too briefly.(Excerpted with permission from The Master by Christopher Clarey, published by John Murray Press, distributed by Hachette India)


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