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ADD "LILY 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.
The 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?
What's more, 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 final.
Realistically, 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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