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Without Peer
September 17, 2007
In winning his fourth straight U.S. Open crown and 12th Grand Slam title, Roger Federer left little doubt that no one in the world does anything as well as he plays tennis
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September 17, 2007

Without Peer

In winning his fourth straight U.S. Open crown and 12th Grand Slam title, Roger Federer left little doubt that no one in the world does anything as well as he plays tennis

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THE MOMENT of consolation came late at the 2007 U.S. Open, but it was not for Roger Federer's latest victim. This one was for the crowd, for the 25,230 unsuspecting fans who had come to Flushing Meadows to take in a New York spectacle, watch some tennis and overpay for food and drink, and who suddenly found themselves lacking. This one was for those who'd tracked Federer's elegant ride into history for the last two weeks, who'd seen him rise to every challenge with otherworldly calm and brush aside all comers like lint off a lapel.

"Congratulations, Roger!" one miserable soul had yelled after one of his wins. "I hate you!" Who wouldn't feel inferior when faced with such imperious talent? Federer's opponent on Sunday, the dynamic and doomed Novak Djokovic, had dubbed Federer "the untouchable one" and was now, stroke by hapless stroke, proving the point. After a while it became impossible not to scan all the famous faces in Arthur Ashe Stadium and engage in pop culture's newest reality show: Roger Federer Is Better Than You.

There sat Oscar-winning actor Robert De Niro, rocker Gavin Rossdale and mogul Donald Trump. Sorry, boys, but here's the truth: Federer plays tennis better than you act, rock and mogul. But don't worry. Plenty of boldfaced names paraded to the Open—Chevy Chase, Liza Minnelli, James Taylor, Christie Brinkley, Vera Wang, Michael Bloomberg, Charles Gibson—and they too came up short. With his 7--6, 7--6, 6--4 victory in the final, the 26-year-old Federer has won four straight U.S. Opens to go with his five consecutive Wimbledons, has taken 12 Grand Slam singles titles in just five years and is only two away from Pete Sampras's record of 14. Hey, Tiger, with your 13 majors over 11 years, relax and join the club. You'll have to search long and hard to find anyone who does something as well, with more style and less effort, as Federer plays tennis.

"A lot of times you don't understand how he can do it," says the 2007 U.S. Open women's singles champion, Justine Henin. "The way he covers the court, it's like he's never forcing his game. He's everywhere. His attitude never changes—winning, losing, if he doesn't play well—he's very calm. He is going to be the best player ever. I don't see anyone who can stop him now."

No one does, and the ease of his conquests can be daunting for the rest of us mortals. After all, Federer won this major—just as he won Wimbledon in July, just as he won six others—without a coach. "I don't need to sit down and talk about an opponent for an hour," he said after sweeping aside No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko to reach his record 10th straight Grand Slam final. "Takes me basically 15 seconds [to come up with a game plan]. I know everything I need to know."

So when that moment of consolation came Sunday, with Federer up two sets to love and leading 4--3 on Djokovic's serve, who could blame the fans for reacting the way they did? At 30--all, Federer raced to net, homed in on a sure winner—and, like any Sunday hacker, dumped his forehand volley into the net. The crowd sent up a celebratory roar, the loudest of the match. Federer was shocked, but how could he possibly understand? If only for a second, there was this comforting revelation: He's human too! It didn't last, of course. Two games later Federer punished Djokovic for caving on the seven set points he had squandered in the first two sets, breaking him with the same vicious backhand that had torn up every other opponent this fortnight, and reclaiming the U.S. Open title and the crowd's collective awe.

"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.

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