Simple. Easy. Nice. Talk to anyone in the game who had to wrangle with John McEnroe or the Williams sisters or any open-era No. 1, and you will never hear those words together. Federer's dominance has been so absolute, his winning of three 2004 Grand Slam titles so effortless, his assumption of the attendant media and sponsor responsibilities so angst-free, that it's only human to overlook how radical a force he is. Tennis has never seen anything quite like him.
Sailing alone, making his own game plan, famously outthinking coaching guru Brad Gilbert during the Wimbledon final against Andy Roddick, the 23-year old Federer lost just six matches in '04, went 11--0 in finals and won his last 23 matches against top 10 players, routing the field to win November's Masters Cup. Only a third-round loss to Gustavo Kuerten at Roland Garros stopped Federer from winning all four Grand Slam tournaments; the last time the sport got even a whiff of that was in 1997, when Hingis won three.
Yet if Federer's campaign placed him in the company of tennis greats, it also had an oddly unique feel. Throughout, Federer seemed less intent on making history or crushing the competition than on exploring his limits. Whenever a big or tricky match loomed, he wondered if he could handle, say, Roddick's power or bad weather or New York's singular pressures; he was the first to say he didn't know. Faced with Ivo Karlovic's massive serve at Wimbledon, he was less nervous than intrigued. "I thought it was an unbelievably nice test: Can he serve me off the court? Am I not a good enough returner to cope with that pressure?" Federer said after. "Well, I did, and I'm happy."
It's not often you see the tennis tour used as a platform for personal growth, but Federer hasn't followed the norm for a while. Despite his conservative demeanor, he has broken with convention far more fundamentally than, say, Andre Agassi or McEnroe; where it matters most--money and winning--the game's rebels have needed their hands held as much as anyone. By the 1980s every young player had a big-time agent, either from behemoth IMG or one of its enemies, and a No. 1 without a full-time coach was as normal as a limo without a driver. But in 2003 Federer broke with IMG and directed his business dealings to his parents; his girlfriend, former Swiss player Mirka Vavrinec; plus a media expert, accountant and lawyer. Later that year, despite winning Wimbledon and the Masters Cup championship in Houston, Federer fired Lundgren. For the next 13 months, he talked over his game mostly with Vavrinec and a friend from his junior days. Last week Federer hired Aussie coach Tony Roche as a consultant, but he's still in no rush to hire someone full time. After all, Federer broke into greatness on his own.
"Roger has this natural instinct for getting better--and he did," Hingis says. "I find that incredible. I always had someone to tell me if something was wrong. He just felt it."
Hingis, of course, upended the women's game with brains and touch similar to Federer's, but it's no shock that his game leaves her mystified. It does that to everybody. The service motion, forehand and demeanor prompt an easy comparison with Sampras, but Federer's youthful nickname of Petit Pete hasn't held up. Sampras's career was built on aces and quickness; his greatness was easily explained and thus, for the easily bored, boring. But no one has accused Federer of being dull, because his tennis is as smooth and elusive as a ball of mercury. You can't quite put your finger on him. In an age of power his is a game of manipulation: Federer doesn't shut down opponents so much as expose them. Few players generate more racket head speed, and his combination of conditioning and exquisite footwork leaves the impression that he always has more time, more space, in which to react. His rivals, in a clear sign of surrender, have all but given up using tennis terms to describe him. Marat Safin, arguably the second-most-talented man on tour, calls Federer "a magician"; '04 French Open champ Gaston Gaudio calls him "a genius"; for Agassi he is "an inspiration." Rod Laver, whose Grand Slam season in 1969 may well be the only one comparable with Federer's 2004, is no less awestruck. Federer's anticipation and court sense, Laver says, leave him wondering, match after match, How did he do that? "It's uncanny," Laver says. "He's never out of place. But you think, How can he never be out of place?"
Serena Williams says, "I wish I could play like Roger Federer."
It has been 20 years since a man has been talked about in such a way. McEnroe's touch allowed tennis cognoscenti to bandy a word like "artistry," and Federer is blessed with the same rare gift. But it's harder to be an artist these days. Racket technology and weight training have made the players bigger, more powerful; Federer who is 6'1", 177, is creating beautiful tennis off a barrage McEnroe never faced. At the same time, the tour is dominated by athletes, not players, and though the top 100 is better than ever, the top 10 is not. It's easier to look as though you're working with brush and palette when everyone else is playing paintball. "Nobody hits a good slice, so nobody knows what it is anymore," says Swiss coach Heinz Gunthardt. "So Roger hits his little short slice--which used to be a standard approach shot--and nobody knows how to get past him, and people say, 'My God! Look at that shot!'"
There's never been a player more complete. Unlike McEnroe and Sampras, Federer can beat the best on clay and will be a favorite to win the French; unlike Laver and Bjorn Borg, he has won Slam titles on hard court. "He stays back better than me, his backhand is better, and his forehand is just as good," Sampras says. "His temperament will enable him to stay on top as long as he wants." This is why, though Federer has won only four Slam titles, many believe he can complete a Grand Slam and gun for Sampras's record of 14 Slam titles. "There's no one who can play with him today," Sampras says. "For the next four or five years, his competition will be the record books."
Aside from injury, then, the only thing capable of stopping Federer is Federer. For now, he's motivated: On Saturday it took him just 63 minutes to win the Qatar Open. Whether he cares enough to chase Sampras won't be known for years, but it's clear that the first stage of his career has ended. When Federer returned to Basel last autumn, he came home for the first time free of pressure, free of frustration and fear. "Everything from now on is only positive," he says. "Of course there will be ups and downs, many moments when I'll think I should've won that match or done this or that differently. But I've lived up to all the expectations. It gives me huge relief: I can look in the mirror and know I can achieve. I'm playing great tennis. I'm enjoying the tour, having fun with the fans off the court. I'm loving it now."