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
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.