The comic book Asterix in Switzerland is full of joys, not least the many jokes about Swiss obsessions with tidiness and bureaucracy. Watching the Basel Open last week, the audience was a treat. Immaculate of course, with giant glasses, and cashmere V-necks looped over the shoulders, and doubtless trading assets between matches over hot chocolate and a strudel.
But even his home-town crowd and all the UBS credit cards in the Alps couldn’t lift the greatest Swiss of all to take what would have been only his second title of the year. Roger Federer was outgunned in the final by Juan Martin del Potro, having just squeaked past a rangy young Canadian called Vasek Pospisil (no, me neither), ranked about 40, in the semis.
The same day Federer lost to the Argentinian, over in Istanbul Serena Williams was beating Li Na in the final of the WTA championships. Compare and contrast: both these great players are 32, and both have won 17 grand slam singles titles, but while Serena has had the best year of her career, Federer has had the worst. He hasn’t managed to make any grand slam final, has won only one title (in Halle), and has only reached two other finals (including Basel).
His achievements of course are awesome, but among those who have beaten him over the year are such journeymen as Julien Benneteau (world no. 39, at Rotterdam), Federico Delbonis (world no. 114, in Hamburg), and most notably Sergiy Stakhovsky (world no. 116, at Wimbledon, which dropped Federer out of the top four for the first time since 2003). His qualification for next week’s World Tour finals shouldn’t have gone to the wire, and it might not be long before he’s not even the best player in Switzerland.
But as the curtain seems to be slowly falling on Federer’s brilliant career, Serena Williams is shining like never before. In 2013 she’s won two majors and nine other titles, more than in any previous year. She fought back heroically after her career seemed over in 2011 when she lacerated the tendon in her right foot on broken glass in a restaurant. Now she lives in Paris, and you wouldn’t bet against her reaching Margaret Court’s record of 24 major singles titles.
Could Serena’s newfound passion for the game be to do with the widely rumoured, though very much still not public, affair with her coach, the ruggedly tousled Patrick Mouratoglou? One passion reigniting another, it’s nice to think. And much as Rog clearly dotes on his ever-present wife Mirka and their four-year-old twin girls, they have been together, it seems, more or less since Federer first slipped on a pair of Green Flashes. Mirka is clearly a great mother: one word you would never use to describe Serena is mumsy.
While we’re on about great champions, what on earth does Sebastian Vettel have to do? One of the best racing drivers in history, perhaps the very best, and his fourth successive Formula 1 world championship passes off almost unnoticed. Vettel is truly exceptional. It’s not his fault that he’s in a great car, but to his great credit that he can get the most out of it. You can argue than Fernando Alonso is the best racer, and that Lewis Hamilton is the fastest, but Vettel has left them for dead.
Which is more than can be said right now for Gareth Bale, currently toiling largely unloved in Spain, weighed down by the biggest price tag in footballing history. In the first clasico of the season Bale looked wretched and forlorn, and it was a release when he was taken off after an hour. That sort of money can be a terrible burden, though one you wouldn’t mind having.
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.