‘Will this be the last time I see him?’ I wondered as I trod the familiar route down Wimbledon Park Road on Monday. I was off to see Roger Federer – a month away from his fortieth birthday – taking on Lorenzo Sonego in the fourth round. There were two other matches scheduled on Centre Court – Novak Djokovic against Cristian Garin, and 17-year-old Coco Gauff against the former number one Angelique Kerber – but both felt almost beside the point. That’s the danger with extreme partisanship: it can suck the excitement out of everything else. When I watch other players, I judge them by Federer’s standards. And no one measures up.
I went to last Sunday’s World Cup final with my father (we sat in a box; a Russian friend of his had offered him two tickets). It was 22 years since I’d last been in Moscow. There was no sign now of the scruffy riotousness I remembered. Everything about the city gleamed: a giant project of beautification had been undertaken in the run-up to the World Cup. Decades of grime had been scrubbed from the buildings, and a plethora of new roads, parks and pedestrian precincts built. The kerbside kiosks that had once sold vodka through the night were bulldozed two years ago, in an act of official vandalism unofficially known as the ‘Night of the Long Shovels’.
I’ve been to Wimbledon twice this week. On Monday, I turned up at 8 a.m. and took my place in line for a ticket for the following day. Since each day’s order of play is only announced the previous evening, this was the one way I could be certain of seeing Roger Federer. There were 100 or so tents ahead of me, which meant I was definitely among the first 500, giving me a choice of any court. (When Andy Murray is playing, two nights’ camping is required.) I pitched my tent and spent most of the next 14 hours lounging around outside my tent or, when it was raining, inside it. I was occasionally tempted to sneak off, but a plummy-voiced steward told me that absences of more than an hour were likely to result in expulsion.
This year's snooker World Championship final, which ended last night, was in its way a classic, despite there being no black-ball finish in the small hours. It was between the game’s most brilliant but volatile player, Ronnie O’Sullivan, and its most imperturbable strategist, Mark Selby, who put on a remarkable display of defensive ensnarement. Few people beforehand gave Selby much chance: when O’Sullivan’s head is together, as it has been recently, he is virtually unstoppable, particularly in a long match. (He had won all five of his previous world finals.) And at first, it seemed as if he would run away with this one, as Selby, looking jaded after a gruelling semi-final against Neil Robertson, struggled to find his game.
As finals go, it wasn’t brilliant. But maybe that was for the best. As the commentators kept reminding us, yesterday’s match was all about ending ‘77 years of pain'. Had it been anything like as close as predicted, the pain involved in causing the pain to end might have been too much for Tim Henman, Sue Barker et al to bear. As it was, the only moment of overt tension came at the end of the third set, when Murray, serving for the match at 5-4, got to 40-0 before Djokovic pulled him back to deuce, and then had a chance to break. Had Murray lost that game, who knows what might have happened? But that particular avenue of heartbreak was avoided. To the conspicuous delight of David Cameron (front row of the Royal Box), Alex Salmond (second) and a pair of Hollywood actors who kept their jackets on throughout despite the heat, Murray won. How much does 'the country' really care?
Having played quite brilliantly to crush the nation’s alternative outlet of sporting patriotism, Rafael Nadal's destiny in tomorrow's Wimbledon final seems clear: he will complete his comeback from last year's injury-induced loss of form to win his second consecutive Grand Slam and prove, once more, that he’s easily the best player in the world. But to do that he must beat Thomas Berdych, an opponent he can’t have contemplated facing at the start of the tournament. Berdych hasn’t exactly come from nowhere – he reached the semi-finals at Roland Garros and is seeded 12th at Wimbledon – but it’s still a major shock for him to have got this far, especially as he had to beat both Federer and Djokovic to do so. If he beats Nadal tomorrow, he would be Wimbledon’s most improbable winner since Richard Krajicek in 1996.
Sport is very different when mediated by a television camera. On screen, you lose all sense of a ball's true speed, of the players' astonishing agility. Roger Federer's forehand on TV is still a thing of beauty, but it's something you can (almost) take for granted. Seeing it for real is a useful, if crushing, reminder of how far removed it is from anything you could come up with yourself. On two consecutive nights last week, thanks to some generous colleagues at the newspaper where I work, I went to the ATP World Tour tennis finals at the O2 arena (formerly the Millennium Dome) in Greenwich. The organisers went for maximum American-style razzmatazz. Before the players came out there was a long build-up involving flashing lights, a rousing voiceover, and clips of interviews displayed on giant screens suspended from the ceiling.