Federer inspires comparisons to all-time greats
Posted: Sunday September 12, 2004 9:33PM; Updated: Sunday September 12, 2004 9:33PM
NEW YORK (AP) -- Too easy.
That's how Roger Federer makes tennis seem. He takes a game filled with grunts and looks as if he's gliding effortlessly on the court, almost floating, artistically painting lines and corners with winners.
Federer made a bagel sandwich of 2001 champion Lleyton Hewitt in a 6-0, 7-6 (3), 6-0 U.S. Open final Sunday -- two holey sets surrounding a tiebreak -- to win his third Grand Slam title of the year and the fourth of his young career.
It's tempting, after watching so thorough a thrashing -- the first with two shutout sets in the U.S. men's championship match since 1884 -- to wonder if the self-coached, 23-year-old Swiss might be on his way to becoming the greatest player in history.
Is Pete Sampras' record 14 major titles safe?
Can Federer join Rod Laver and Don Budge as the only men to sweep the four Grand Slam tournaments in one year?
As brilliantly as he played this year, the odds are against Federer in both pursuits, though no one should dismiss his chances.
John McEnroe gushes over Federer's manifold talents -- a nearly perfect balance of the baseline and net games, big serves when he needs them, elegant strokes from both sides, an internal fire and external coolness.
"He's the most gifted player that I've ever seen in my life," McEnroe said. "I've seen a lot of people play. I've seen the [Rod] Lavers, I played against some of the great players -- the Samprases, Beckers, Connors, Borg. You name it. This guy could be the greatest of all-time. That, to me, says it all."
Indeed it does. Yet it is also too soon to say where Federer, winner of the Australian Open and Wimbledon earlier this year, will end up in the pantheon of tennis stars.
The last man who won three majors in the same year, Sweden's Mats Wilander in 1988, watched this final from his home in Hailey, Idaho, and wisely cautioned fans not to get too carried away with expectations. Not that Wilander wasn't impressed with Federer.
"I'd like to be in his shoes for one day to know what it feels like to play that way," Wilander said. "He's a little better than everyone else at everything right now. Physically and mentally he has the advantage over the other players."
Asked what he would say to Federer right now, Wilander laughed and said, "Go for four next year! Take my name away completely."
Wilander did, in fact, call Federer moments later in the locker to congratulate him and urge him on. Yet a Grand Slam is far easier said than done, as is reaching the far distant record of Sampras, who won his fourth major a year earlier at age 22.
"When I won three in one year, I thought, like a lot of other people, that I could keep doing that," Wilander said. "But things happen. It was hard to keep that level up and then I hurt my knee. He's way, way farther away than close to reaching Sampras. Guys don't win majors in their 30s. You run out of desire. You slow down a step.
"What Roger can learn from looking at other champions -- even though now he seems unbeatable -- is to chill out, take it easy, take the long view."
One of the all-time greats of the game, Jack Kramer, watched the final with the same awe for Federer's talents as everyone else.
"Roger is a complete player," said the 83-year-old Kramer, a two-time U.S. nationals winner and a pioneer of pro tennis. "What he has -- and it's not luck -- is the ability to change his game slightly as to what his opponent's doing to him.
"He's not known as a great aggressive player, but he's so good on the defense and so good at the return of serve that he's forcing the other player, mentally, to get a little bit of scaredness. 'I've got to serve a little better or Roger's going to knock it by me. ... I've got to make a better approach shot or he's going to pass me.'
"He's getting errors because of the threat of his skills. That's why he's the champ."
Kramer said it's natural that when anybody is on a run like Federer's that people will compare him with the stars of the past.
"Personally, I would have loved to have seen Don Budge or Ellsworth Vines play with this equipment. I don't care who's on the other side, whether it's Roger, Agassi, no matter. I think they would have figured out a way to win. They had the power and control."
At the moment, no one has that combination so thoroughly as Federer. And no one knows better than he does how difficult it is to maintain such a fine balance under pressure.
"It's a very demanding sport," Federer said. "The season is long. There's not much time off. So this is why I'm very grateful every tournament or every Grand Slam when I win. You never know when it's your last one because of injury.
"I know how hard I need to work for every title and every match. Motivation has got to be there every day. This is not a normal thing I am doing right now. This is something out of this world."