Roger Federer plays a different game of Tennis. Federer march through 2004 had its roots in winning the Master Cup tournament at the end of 2003. At the beginning of the 2003 season, Andre Agassi won the Australian Open then the young stars took over. The young clay master J.C. Ferraro won the French, Federer nabbed the Wimbledon and Andy Roddick captured the U.S. Open. At the end of the 2003 season, Federer was ranked number two behind Roddick with Ferraro third. The young stars were in charge of the sport but as the 2004 season began, the question that remained was- which of these young stars would take control?
Ferraro, the master of the clay surface, fell prey to injuries and chicken pox as his performance slipped. Andy Roddick continued his improvement shown in 2003 but Federer overshadowed the young America as the Swiss took his game to stratosphere not seen in years. Not since the late 80’s, had a player won three majors in one season. Not even the great Sampras accomplished that.
Federer performance against Hewitt proved a lesson in Tennis. The Young Australian came into the final playing his best Tennis since he won the U.S. Open in 2001. Lleyton Hewitt had yet to lose a set in the previous six matches of the tournament and he appeared at his peak. Quick and dogged, Hewitt had the skills to upset Federer. But on this day, those skills paled in comparison to the master as Federer was at his best.
Federer game has reached a new level rarely seen in Tennis. It is a game without apparent effort and his mastery of the game is without peer. Federer seems able to guide the ball in places just out of reach of his opponent rackets or he seems to place it just inside the legal boundaries. Just when you think that Federer is out of place, he glides to the ball and before you know it, the ball bounds just inside the line. While Hewitt appears to sprint to the ball, Federer strides to the ball. Federer pace appears control but it hides the ground that he makes up in quick fashion.
Federer’s strength is that he has no weakness. He does not have the power of Andy Roddick, but his serve is powerful enough. His return skills match that of Agassi or Hewitt and he can play the net or he can play the baseline. It does not matter what games is played against him, he comes out on top.
Let Roddick fire those 150 mph bombs, Federer will just ship them back. Let Agassi hide behind the baseline and Federer’s patience will eventually win out. Hewitt dogged endurance baseline game and speed will merely be child play with Federer’s all round game.
Federer is the definition of the game of Tennis. The first and third sets of the US Open were merely shutouts. In Tennis lexicon, Federer handed Hewitt a bagel. The only competitive set was the second but Federer took control in the tiebreaker and won 7-3. Hewitt tenacity fell victim to Federer’s calm.
There is a coolness that exists in the Swiss mannerism. Look at Federer’s face and you can’t tell if he is up or down a break. If you want to know what is happening, you have to look at the scoreboard. Hewitt and Roddick wear their emotion on their faces as they pump themselves and the crowd up. Federer rarely lets his emotion show but beneath the cool exterior is a competitor who plays by his own rule. As one Tennis writer wrote, “Tennis rewards repetition and redundancy: the best players are often the ones who can consistently repeat combinations over and over as if conducting a cross-court drill. But Federer is that rare champion whose brilliance is not only the beauty of his strokes but in his skill at creating imaginative combinations other players cannot even conceptualize let alone execute.”
Part of the fun watching Federer is seeing what new shots he creates. He is the Picasso of modern Tennis and the court is his canvas. You can’t quite define him as a player and his game represent a new pinnacle in the sport.
He has now captured 4 majors in the past two years but Roddick, Ferraro and Hewitt will mount serious challenges to his hegemony and each has the specific skills to defeat Federer. We may be witnessing his peak now or just the beginning of a great reign. Only history will tell us if this is Federer Apex or the beginning of a new championship reign.
Federer is a different player. Roddick has Brad Gilbert at his side but Federer depends upon his own council. He has no coach; only his instinct. So far that instinct that appears so natural on the court has proven to be correct.
Why write about Federer? Rarely does an athlete dominate his sport in the fashion that Federer did Tennis this year. Between 1989 and 2003, Americans have dominated the Majors. Sampras has won 14 of those majors and Agassi contributed 8. Americans have won half of the majors in that period and more often than not, an American player was in the final of a major.
Among the American men, only Roddick and Agassi challenge the very elites of the sport but Agassi is 34 years old. Federer is leading an international challenge to the past American domination. Federer is the Michael Jordan of Tennis and time will tell if that domination extends beyond this year. But this year saw a master at work. Such mastery is a rarity and should be treasured.
Tom Donelson is the co-author of the book, Coming of Age: Andy Roddick’s Breakthrough Year along with his daughter, Bethany Donelson. This is his fifth book that he has written or co-written.