Without Peer (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday September 11, 2007 11:29AM; Updated: Tuesday September 11, 2007 11:29AM
"It's important that people respect what I do, and I think over the past couple years that has happened," Federer said late Sunday night. "There were times I felt people were like...." He shrugged. "It was a bit strange. But now I almost have the feeling [they know] they're watching greatness. Especially after that fifth Wimbledon, that really put me in a different league. That Wimbledon and this U.S. Open are going to change a lot of things."
The Open has long been the tennis year's defining event, and this fortnight was no exception. Both Federer and fellow No. 1 Henin -- who scooted to her seventh Grand Slam title without dropping a set, rolling over Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-1, 6-3 in last Saturday's final -- emerged as the class of their respective tours. After again raising his game just enough to dispatch a frantic Andy Roddick (now 1-14 against him) in straight sets, Federer walked off the court, bumped into the CEO of his racket sponsor and giggled, "Did you enjoy it? Me too!" He had no idea that, just minutes before, Roddick had stalked into the locker room screaming, "F------ A, Andy! F---! F---!" And Federer cared not at all when, despite the effort by some reporters to clarify, Roddick inflated one of Federer's benign postmatch comments into an insult and cursed, snapped and fumed his way through his press conference.
Indeed, heading into the final stretch, it seemed the Open would be permanently marred by the churlish exits of its homegrown heroes. Serena Williams cemented a reputation for unsporting self-delusion when, after getting trounced by Henin 7-6, 6-1 in the quarters, she said Henin had hit "a lot of lucky shots." Even the more charitable Venus Williams, victim of Henin's superior conditioning and -- yes -- power in her 7-6, 6-4 loss in the semis, took some of the gloss off Henin's win when she complained afterward about a mystifying dizziness. Venus, said her mother, Oracene Price, learned that she had anemia after Wimbledon, and she was afflicted with a form of vertigo throughout the hard-court season; Price wants her daughter to get a complete medical workup. But until the doctors' diagnosis, Venus's complaint comes across as another example of a Williams sister's refusing to concede a loss. After all, Henin played all tournament with shoulder problems and asthma. "I'm surprised," Henin said, rolling her eyes at Venus's excuse. "I had some breathing problems for a couple of months, but much more the last two, three days. I saw the doctor also. I could say I wasn't 100 percent, but I was fighting on every point."
But by then, and from the most unlikely of places, the Open had already found the antidote to such pettiness. Last Thursday night, after easily beating onetime No. 1 Carlos Moya in the quarters, the 20-year-old Djokovic launched into hilarious oncourt imitations of Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal. Djokovic's spot-on impressions of Sampras and Federer had grown into YouTube staples over the fortnight. At the request of USA Network's Michael Barkann, Djokovic hiked up his shorts, minced to the line and served up a perfect Maria, followed by a leaping, flexing, wedgie-digging Nadal while the Ashe Stadium crowd, and his shocked parents, howled.
Djokovic had played in the tournament's best match -- a five-set epic against Radek Stepanek in the second round -- and his raucous corps of Serbian fans had jump-started the crowds, but for him to deliver one of the best postmatch scenes in Open history was another thing entirely. With the men's tour still reeling from a gambling investigation concerning Davydenko, Djokovic's singular ability to combine levity with grim purpose, to hit winners from every angle and to spark members of his entourage to tear off their shirts and hurl them into the crowd after he won, imbued what has become an increasingly saccharine event with some of that old-time Flushing Meadows chaos.
But the No. 3-ranked Djokovic, who had beaten Federer last month in Montreal, was more than a circus act, and Federer knew it. His hands shook and were cold to the touch before Sunday's match. "I do ask myself the question, How long is this run going to last?" Federer said. "And the more I win, the more I ask myself. But I didn't come here to lose in the final. I came to win."
Federer outplayed Djokovic on nearly every big point, won his third major of the year and passed 11-time Slam winners Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg on the alltime list. "I'm chasing down Sampras," Federer said afterward -- and he's already got an answer for people, such as Sampras himself, who question the level of his competition. "I disagree," Federer said. "I think the depth [on the men's tour] is much better now, 1 to 100." The competition might look weaker, he said, simply "because I've taken all the Grand Slams with Rafa. If [Marat] Safin or Roddick and all these other guys would've gotten more, people would think there is much more depth now. But they didn't. Because I've taken them all."
In other words, world, take your consolation where you can. Federer has no rival, not really, not anywhere. And he's ready to make the case, with his game and with his mouth, until you understand.
2 of 2