Who will be Federer's foil?
Tennis needs a star to regularly challenge world No. 1
Posted: Friday March 16, 2007 1:49PM; Updated: Friday March 16, 2007 1:49PM
Upsets are a common, but great, part of tennis. During the past week at the Pacific Life Open, we've seen a fair share.
But it's rare when both No. 1 seeds are knocked out before the quarterfinals -- even rarer when one of those top seeds is the seemingly unbeatable Roger Federer, who lost in his first match.
Everyone around the game had assumed Federer would surpass the Open era's consecutive-match victory mark during this week's event in Indian Wells, Calif. Instead, he was upset by Guillermo Canas, and the instant the match was over, the vibe around the tournament completely changed from one of, "Can I make it to the final?" to "Now I can win this tournament." Players are too proud to admit it, but that's the reality.
In a perfect world, the guy who would be Federer's foil -- the Frazier to his Ali, the Bird to his Magic -- would step up and carry the ATP field. But there's a problem: There is no such guy.
Similar to golf, with Tiger Woods, men's tennis has one dominant player in Federer and no consistent foil to challenge his reign. Different players have taken their shots at Federer, as evidenced by his final-round opponents in his last handful of tournaments -- Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick, James Blake, Fernando Gonzalez -- but none have been able to create the type of consistent threat that tennis craves.
Nadal appeared to have what it took -- he still owns clay courts and famously took Federer down in consecutive French Opens and in two other tournaments on clay. But the Spaniard's inability to maintain or even improve on last year's form has created a revolving-door effect in the later stages of tournaments.
His opponent in the Pac Life semifinals, Roddick, has improved vastly from his downturn last year, and his partnership with Jimmy Connors seemed to suggest the big server was on his way to reasserting himself. But his record against Federer is famously bad: In 14 matches against the Swiss master, he's 1-13. Blake's form against Federer is even worse. In six meetings, Blake has only been able to win one set on the Mighty Fed.
It's too bad that Federer can't do what Tiger has done in golf, that is carry the sport all by himself. Tiger is more than just an athlete; he is an entertainment icon, and people want to see him play, regardless of whom he is competing against or how competitive or dramatic it is.
I spoke with a television executive last week and he bemoaned the two weeks a year that golf entertained the same single-elimination format that tennis employs and how dramatic the ratings decrease when Woods isn't in contention. Luckily, he usually is. And on those rare occasions he isn't, the networks can still show him trotting around the course in some capacity since he's still out there competing.
Right now, tennis doesn't have that luxury. Federer is the end-all, be-all of the men's side. One upset isn't going to change the landscape of the game.
Even though he lost his first-round match at Indian Wells, 12-year ATP pro Justin Gimelstob is well on his way to recovery from back surgery.