For all the relentless winning Roger Federer did in 2005 -- to date, his record this year is a preposterous 77-3 -- one of his more telling moments came in defeat. In a gripping semifinal match at the Australian Open, Federer was down match point to Russia's Marat Safin. Reaching to retrieve a shot, Federer lost his footing and fell to the court. Safin lined up an easy, final winner, and, from his knees, Federer dejectedly tossed his racket toward the ball. For a split second, neither Safin nor the capacity crowd erupted. Instead, they froze for a split second and watched. To them, it was hardly impossible that Federer could somehow find a way to retrieve a shot without a racket in his hands. Such is the level of expectation for his magic.
Federer would rebound from that loss and lay claim to 11 titles on the year, including successful defenses at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Along the way he rendered the rest of the field foils. There is a collective realization on the ATP Tour that, until Federer retires, everyone is playing for second place. Lleyton Hewitt -- not usually one to make concessions -- conceded after losing to Federer for the ninth straight time: "There's no doubt that Roger has taken it to a new level and everyone else is trying to play catch-up." Or as Nicolas Kiefer put it matter-of-factly, "We play on earth, but he he's playing on another planet."
As for rest of the tennis salon, we have long exhausted superlatives to characterize Federer's brilliance. (Roger, Roget. Roget, Roger.) Broadcasters have given up trying to describe the indescribable and simply laugh an incredulous laugh when Federer reels off one of his you-gotta-be-kidding-me winners. Most fans have the reaction of my seatmate one hot afternoon in Cincinnati, who, during a changeover, whipped out his cell phone and told a friend, "You just gotta see this guy. I can't explain it. He's just un-friggin-believable."
Raw numbers don't do justice to Federer's artistry and versatility, nor to the fact that the next person he antagonizes will be the first. But consider: at a time when men's tennis has never been more competitive Federer has won five of the last eight Majors. For the second straight year, he won titles on every major surface. Perhaps the most impressive streak in sports at the moment, he is undefeated in his last 24 tournament finals.
Contrary's to Kiefer's assertion, Federer does play on this planet. All over it, in fact, from Melbourne to Miami to Monte Carlo to the Middle East. He's based in Switzerland. His charitable foundation is based in South Africa. Being a global icon -- literally a citizen of the world -- doesn't always work in his favor. If, by accident of birth, Federer were from Spokane or Syracuse, is there any doubt he would reside in the same sports celebrity wing as Tiger or Shaq? If he played a full season in Atlanta or Dallas, is there any doubt he doesn't win this award?
As it stands, he gets my vote. And sooner or later, he'll be made in the U.S.A.