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Posted: Wednesday August 20, 2008 11:38AM; Updated: Monday August 25, 2008 11:07AM
Jon Wertheim Jon Wertheim >
TENNIS MAILBAG

A salute to Federer's reign and why the Olympics aren't all that bad

Story Highlights
  • Roger Federer's reign is over, and he deserves credit for being a great champion
  • I still think a Slam eclipses Olympic Gold, but the passion was noted in Beijing
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Roger Federer's bid his rank atop the tennis world adieu after his Olympics loss.
Roger Federer's bid his rank atop the tennis world adieu after his Olympics loss.
Bob Rosato/SI

Roger Federer's reign at No. 1 has ended after almost five years. I think it would be appropriate for you to dedicate a front thanking Mr. Federer for giving athletes and fans a five-year lesson on how to carry yourself when you're a champion. He's a class act on and off the court. In my case, I didn't follow tennis before him and now I love the sport. He's a real hero and inspiration for millions. I hope you honor him the way he deserves because even though his career is far from over, we don't know if he'll ever be number one again. Thanks.
--
Alejandro Arias, Mexico

• Absolutely. Before we discuss the Olympics, the U.S. Open and sundry other topics, how about we pause for a moment and salute the end of a sensational era.

I love Federer's last act as a No. 1. Playing in the Olympics, he suffers still another crushing defeat, this one an upset loss to James Blake in the quarterfinals. He's failed to achieve one of his long-avowed goals of winning a medal. This is unquestionably devastating. Yet he regroups and teams with Stan Wawrinka to win a gold medal in doubles. Obviously not the gold medal he had in mind; but I think that speaks awfully eloquently about Federer's character.

I'd like to offer a little defense for Olympic tennis ... first, it offered two separate but concurrent storylines, as the US Open Series was also underway - technically this happens between the Grand Slams, with multiple tournaments each week, but it never feels this way. While most of the big guns were playfully slugging away in Beijing, we watched the rise of a superstar - del Potro; the fall (?) of a superstar -- Roddick's in another slump; and an injured great get some wins under her belt away from the glare of the spotlight -- Mauresmo. Because the Olympics offered a 64-person field, yet had most of the top 20 entered, matches were interesting from the first round. And where else can Dementieva win at an international level without inciting buzz about what's wrong with women's tennis?
--
Steven Gerard, Brooklyn, NY

• I watched Novak Djokovic cry in defeat. I watched Federer's childlike reaction to victory in doubles. I watched Nadal ring the court wearing the Spanish flag like a cape. I watched Russia cement its dominance in the women's game. I watched Elena Dementieva take gold and refer to the occasion as, "the best thing that's happened to me in my life." This won me over. Keep tennis in the Olympics. It would be unfair to deprive players of the experience. But change the format so it feels more special and less like a run-of-the-mill tournament.

Jon: Blake's reaction to Gonzalez not conceding the point when the ball clearly ticked off Gonzalez' racket at a key moment in the third set of their semifinal -- justified or not? How often to top pros concede points to their opponents on clearly blown calls by umpires and/or line judges?
-- Rene Ferran, Kennewick, WA

• I think there's a difference between blown calls -- for which there's Hawkeye, as well as a longstanding tradition of deferring to the chair with the understanding that bad calls even out over the course of a match -- and failing to concede that a ball hit your racket. Have to side with Blake on this one. Clearly the ball ticked off Gonzo's racket and it was disappointing that he didn't admit as much. I also thought that his remarks -- "I mean, it's just one point. There is an umpire. If I'm 100 percent sure about it, I mean, I will give it. But I'm not sure" -- were pretty sketchy. Do any serious players out there ever recall being unsure whether a ball ticked their racket or not? Not me.

I will say this in Gonzo's defense. There are a few players with dubious reputations for sportsmanship. He is not one of them. And while he should have conceded the point, it doesn't absolve Blake from squandering the match points and failing to win the darn thing.

• Speaking of bad sportsmanship, several of you asked about John McEnroe, getting defaulted from a Seniors Match after a bizarre tantrum last week. One of you asked whether this "blow-up" was a WWE-style publicity stunt that had been written into his contract. Sadly, the answer is no. While both the tournament and the tour were quick to seize on the promotional appeal, opportunistically dashing off e-mails within a few minutes of the eruption, this was a genuine Mt. Vesuvius job. Whatever happened to the guy who decided that Claus Umlaut, umpire at the 1985 U.S. Open, wasn't evil after all?

This episode struck me as being both sad and troubling, particularly, coming as it did, on the heels of an ugly incident with a fan in Boston as well as an unfortunate encounter with Mashona Washington during a World TeamTennis match. (Ironically, Washington's brother, Malivai, was Mac's opponent during last week's debacle.) That McEnroe is a combustible, complicated figure is not exactly a news flash. But why, at 49, is he still this flammable? McEnroe has reinvented himself and rescued his reputation to the point that he gets to mock his old incarnation. He's an astute commentator, a respected voice and a figure of such enduring popularity that he can still make big money for corporate appearances. He's risking all this over a few annoyances at summer exhibitions?

People ask me about McEnroe and I feel like I'm back home in Indiana, defending Bob Knight. Same mental gymnastics, same sound bites, "I've seen instances of genuine compassion." "There's another side to him." "He's the last honest man in sports." "An offshoot of genius is intensity." The truth, of course, is that indefensible behavior is indefensible behavior, bullying is bullying. I'm just hoping McEnroe can do what Knight couldn't and rein himself in before he throws the chair, assaults the kid, fights his boss at a salad bar, stains his legacy and vanishes to tennis' equivalent of Lubbock.

Dear Jon, as for tennis to be in the Olympics, I think your view is culturally limited. In my country, when we see Del Potro or Nalbandian playing, we see our country, not just a single man. Nor do I agree with your statement that the tournament isn't even a top four of performance. I'd rather think that a Gonzalez puts his Chilean heart to get the very best of himself to equal Nadal, Federer or Djoko. Don't you think?
-- Sergio Bustos, Buenos Aires

• I still think a Slam eclipses Olympic gold. But, yes, it's worth noting that for many players representing their country on a global stage is an unquestionable career highlight. Again, it would be nice if this could be emphasized a bit more in the format.

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