GILDER" to the list of phrases we use to describe Roger Federer. As if his
year weren't already absurdly successful—the three Grand Slam titles, the 92--5
match record, the record $8 million in prize money—the Swiss colossus frosted
his season on Sunday by winning the Masters Cup in Shanghai. The year-end
cotillion is designed to showcase the top players in the men's game. But like
virtually every event these days it turned into the Federer Invitational.
Federer's trophy for winning the event, his 12th of 2006, was a Waterford
crystal bowl. A glass ceiling would have been more fitting. As long as Federer
is in the draw, the rest of the field is playing for second place, limited in
their upward mobility.
Many stats speak
to the size of Federer's empire, but none better than this: Exclude all the
ranking points Federer garnered at the four majors—three titles and a runner-up
finish at the French Open—and he would still be the ATP's top-ranked player for
2006. What the hell, here's one more statistic: Federer's points lead is so
commanding that the differential between him and No. 2 Rafael Nadal is larger
than the gap between Nadal and the 50th-ranked player, Marc Gicquel.
rationalization in the locker room is that Federer has simply been blessed with
cosmic talent: "Too good," as the U.S.'s James Blake, who capitulated
in straight sets in the Shanghai final, puts it. It's true that no word smaller
than genius describes what Federer does. He has the ability to pull off shots
and generate angles that must make his opponents feel unworthy. In Shanghai,
Blake, now No. 4 in the world, played sensational tennis all week. Yet when he
met Federer in the final—he won just seven games—it seemed as though he should
be wearing one of those paper trainee hats.
But this was the
year Federer revealed himself as not just a singular talent. At some point in
Michael Jordan's career we came to see him as something more than a
magnificently skilled basketball player. We glimpsed the ambition and the poise
and the self-sufficiency and the work ethic—the alchemy that produces
greatness. Federer has reached that plane too. Of the eight players who
converged on Shanghai, some hadn't competed in weeks and others were competing
in the vaunted Masters Cup for the first time. Federer, meanwhile, had played
three events in the last five weeks and was making his fifth appearance at the
Masters. Want to guess who arrived in town first, eager to test the court
surface and reset his internal clock?
there were times last week that Federer looked plenty mortal, not least the
three occasions during his match against Andy Roddick when he faced match
point. Federer came up with the proverbial goods each time and escaped with a
4--6, 7--6 (8), 6--4 victory. The postmatch sentiment in the Roddick camp was
that the gap is closing, progress is being made. But the reverse spin is that
their man played a near-flawless match while Federer was decidedly off his
game. And still Federer found a way to win. In some ways, that's more
demoralizing than simply being outclassed in straight sets. "A couple years
ago I would think, Oh, I don't know what to do, I don't have the key," says
Federer. "Thank God I don't [do] that anymore. Through my mental and
physical strength I was able to overcome all these problems."
In other words
Roger is just getting the hang of this tennis thing—a scary thought considering
that, at age 25, he's still squarely in his prime and could easily rule the
sport for several more years. What will it take for someone to penetrate the
Federer Glass Ceiling in 2007? For one thing, smarts. Too often players abandon
a sound game plan—hit high, looping topspin to Federer's backhand; take chances
on returns; take pains to disrupt the Swiss's rhythm—and attempt the fool's
errand of trying to outgun Federer. It will also take a dose of nasty: As it
stands now, Federer's opponents seem afflicted by Stockholm syndrome, weirdly
sympathetic to their tormentor. Too often, respect for Federer among his peers
bleeds over into awe. A bit of luck wouldn't hurt either. No one wishes injury
on another, but maybe Federer could eat some bad shellfish on the eve of a
though, it's hard to see anyone mounting a sustained challenge next year.
Nadal—whose results have nosedived since he was the Wimbledon runner-up—might
upend Federer on clay. And a streaky player might catch Federer on a bad day
and score an upset, as Andy Murray did in August in Cincinnati. But over the
course of a year, the staircase dividing Federer from the rest of the field
gets longer and longer.
Yet maybe parity
is overrated. When Federer plays, we know the deal in advance. The drama
doesn't reside in the outcome of the match, it's in the ways his genius will
express itself. Like the sold-out crowds at the Qi Zhong Tennis Center last
week, most of us are happy to abide by those terms.
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