World's No. 1 tennis player finally getting respect he deserves
Posted: Tuesday August 31, 2004 12:51PM; Updated: Tuesday August 31, 2004 3:53PM
Roger Federer is chasing his third Grand Slam title of the year and fourth of his career.
M. David Leeds/Getty Images
Nike's big ad campaign for the 2004 U.S. Open features a close-up of Switzerland's Roger Federer, the world's top-ranked tennis player, festooned with the message "(Heart symbol) It or Leave It." As catchphrases go, this one is tough to figure out.
Here in the tennis ghetto, Federer isn't exactly a polarizing figure. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find someone more revered. Mention his name to colleagues and you get the equivalent of a present-tense eulogy. Monica Seles will tell you that Federer is the one player whom she would pay to watch. Serena Williams describes his game as "beautiful." Andy Roddick -- the player who is the closest thing Federer has to a rival -- famously remarked, "Geez, maybe I can play like him one day."
Though it took longer than it should have, Federer is starting to get his due from the masses. The marketing honchos at the USTA finally had the good sense to feature Federer prominently in the pre-tournament promotion. Even though he -- horrors! -- is not American. And when Federer, the U.S. Open's top seed, took center stage Monday afternoon for his first-round match against Spain's Albert Costa, thousands filed into Arthur Ashe Stadium and the brahmins in the suites turned to face the court.
Federer didn't disappoint, turning in a clinical straight-set win that included his customary allotment of Dude-you-gotta-be-kidding-me shots. And again, he showed that he is a walking, talking, winner-zinging refutation for the shabby critiques that beset tennis.
Let's take them one by one:
The serve has come to dominate. Federer's delivery is predicated on placement, not pace. He wins his share of points on his serve, but usually it's because he's unleashing nasty cutters, not because he's bringing pure heat. Consider that today he declared himself "very pleased" with his serving. In three sets, he registered all of 11 aces.
Tennis has devolved into mindless baseline bashing. Against Costa, no slouch in the passing-shot department, Federer approached the net 39 times. Thirty of those ventures were successful. Federer slices and dices, he swings for the fences; he hits shots embroidered with spin, he hits 'em flat. Yes, Federer "has every shot in the book," as John McEnroe repeatedly says. But he also has many that aren't.
Technology is ruining the sport. At this very moment, I am staring at a bus, the side of which is plastered with a picture of Federer and his space-age Wilson wand. But the irony is that Federer's versatile, artistic game relies little on technology. Arm him with a Jack Kramer wood and he would be plenty effective.
Tennis players are insufferable prima donnas. Or worse yet, boring. Here's all you need to know about Federer's maturity level: He has coached himself all year.
Beyond that, Federer hung out with The Blog last week. As he nursed his Frappucino, he held court on everything from Broadway shows to his evolution from underachieving head case to tennis colossus. At a time when not a whole lot of athletes do the whole self-reflection drill, get a load of Federer's take on his previous failings:
"Sometimes in the past I walked off knowing I still had much more left in me. Last year at the French Open, that was the worst. I had the wrong tactics. It's the first round and I lost the first set 7-6, and I start the second set saying, 'My gosh, I'm not going to win this thing. I'm going to have to win another three sets. This guy is going to make me run all day. Even, then I'm only in the second round.' After one set, I'm telling myself I have no chance to win this tournament. Can you believe it?
"Second set, went fast. Then I'm like, 'Rog, you have react!' Too late, I lost 7-6. That was on Center Court and people were starting to talk badly. At least the correction came a few weeks later at Wimbledon. It's funny, now when I lose, I feel like I gave everything. I don't like it, but I can live with it."
If Federer wins the Open, it will be his third Grand Slam title of 2004 -- cementing the most dominant year in tennis since McEnroe went 82-3 in 1984. (With all due respect to Michael Phelps and Lance Armstrong, will any athlete have had a better year?) Long story short: If you haven't yet done so, check this guy out these next few weeks.
Half-volleys from Flushing
Tennis' mensch quotient just fell by one. After losing to France's Fabrice Santoro on Monday night, Todd Martin announced his retirement. It was fitting that he did so late at night at the U.S. Open, and in the shadows of Andre Agassi, who was playing in front 20,000 fans when Martin struck his last ball as a pro. ... Brian Baker, the tennissean Tennessean, took a set off of third-seeded Carlos Moya on Monday afternoon. Alas, he succumbed to cramps and lost. ... In a battle between the shortest ATP player and one of the tallest, Mario Ancic (6-foot-5) fell to mighty Olivier Rochus (5-5) in straight sets. ... Daniela Hantuchova -- a top-10 player who was front and center on the WTA's marketing plans not long ago -- was banished to an outside court but survived France's Camille Pin in a sweaty-palmed third-set tiebreaker. ... NCAA singles champ Amber Liu (Stanford) lost to Julia Vakulenko, who wins today's prize for weirdest service motion. ... This has nothing to do with tennis, but here's a piece worth reading: ... Are the Agassis turning into the Brontes? First Mike Agassi, paterfamilias, writes a memoir. Now Tami Agassi, Andre's older sister, has published a celebrity cookbook titled Star Palate. Tammy is a breast-cancer survivor, and all proceeds will go to cancer research. ... Note to the Mets: If you insist on playing Phil Collins (and we wonder why that team is so lousy?) during BP, at least turn the volume low enough so we don't have to hear it on the Grandstand Court. ... Next time you bemoan the price of U.S. Open tickets, consider this: Monday's day session started at 11:00. By the time Santoro finished off Martin, it was well after 10 p.m.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim covers tennis for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.