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The Winner Within
L. JON WERTHEIM
December 25, 2006
After losing in the French Open, Roger Federer faced questions about his tactics--and his courage. No one's questioning him anymore
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December 25, 2006

The Winner Within

After losing in the French Open, Roger Federer faced questions about his tactics--and his courage. No one's questioning him anymore

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It wasn't simply that he'd lost; it was how. Here was Roger Federer, King of Tennis, pitted against his rival, Rafael Nadal, in the French Open final at Roland Garros. With a victory in Paris, Federer would capture the second leg in his quest--hardly quixotic in his case--to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win the Grand Slam. It was an occasion pregnant with significance and pressure, one that presented an opportunity to affirm greatness. And Federer failed to meet the moment. His tactics were questionable. His backhand broke down. Intimidated, it seemed, by the Spaniard's sheer physicality, Federer allowed a look of fear to steal across his normally impassive face.

Nadal won in four sets that June day, and the result put men's tennis in a strange place. Federer, not yet 25 at the time, had been on the verge of overtaking Laver and Pete Sampras to claim the sport's mythical title of GOAT (Greatest of All Time). And yet the Swiss star had now lost five straight matches to Nadal. GOAT? Hell, how could he even be the bona fide No. 1 now, when the guy ranked No. 2 owned him? The tennis salon that had always applauded Federer's independence was now attacking his decision not to employ a full-time coach. Worse, his courage was called into question. After the French final Mats Wilander, a former champ who's not exactly a McEnroevian loose cannon, told SI, "Rafael has the one thing Roger doesn't: balls."

An ornery athlete would have flicked his middle finger at the world. A self-deluded one would have rationalized the loss. Federer is neither. He was as aware as anyone that a challenge had been issued. "It was up to me," he says, "to respond."

What followed was a five-month stretch of utterly dominating tennis. In London in July he exacted revenge on Nadal in the Wimbledon final. In New York City in September he beat Andy Roddick to win the U.S. Open for the third straight time. In Shanghai in November he garnished his year by winning the Masters Cup. After that dispiriting Sunday afternoon in Paris, Federer went 46--1 (the one blemish being a two-set loss to Andy Murray in Cincinnati in August). And Federer did so while playing with style and grace and artistry. Tennis doesn't truck much in statistics, but it's worth noting that he didn't rank among the top 10 players in aces per match. He did, however, rank first in break points saved. Translation: His success is predicated not on power but on poise. (How's that for balls, Mats?)

All the while Federer has embraced the the ancillary duties of being the world No. 1. He blogs on the ATP's website. He's a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. He conducts postmatch interviews in four languages. Men's tennis may have lost its most magnetic star when Andre Agassi retired in September, but when Agassi talked of "leaving the sport in good hands," it was clear whom he chiefly meant. Federer is tennis's ideal figurehead during this global era. In his case, easy lies the head that wears the crown.

When the women held their year-end championships last month in Madrid, three players had a shot at finishing 2006 at No. 1. The ATP has no such parity. Long before Federer closed out his banner year and restored his dominance, he had nearly double the points total of Nadal, the next-closest player. Observers have exhausted the store of adjectives to describe Federer's on-court brilliance. Praise now comes from all corners. "It's a tough proposition to beat a guy who doesn't have a weakness," says James Blake, the top-ranked American. Amid all the fawning and affection, it's easy to forget that were it not for Federer's eloquent response to a challenge--perhaps the ultimate earmark of a true champion--he might be considered a goat instead of the GOAT.

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