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WHEN ROGER FEDERER flew to New York last weekend for his fourth in a series of exhibition matches against Pete Sampras, momentum was not exactly his seatmate. Days earlier Federer had lost to Great Britain's Andy Murray in the first round of the Dubai Tennis Championship. In Federer's previous match he'd lost in the semifinals of the Australian Open to third-ranked Novak Djokovic of Serbia, the tournament's eventual winner. He'd also lost his previous showdown with Sampras, in Macao last November.
In addition to playing unaccustomedly mortal tennis, Federer showed uncharacteristic bitterness, dismissing Murray's game. "He's going to have to grind very hard for the next few years if he keeps playing this way," Federer said after the loss. (By tennis standards—by Federer standards, anyway—this qualifies as smack talk.)
Federer's agent, Tony Godsick, revealed last week that Federer had been suffering from mononucleosis during the Australian Open, which would explain his phlegmatic play. (Godsick claims that Federer's doctors, had they known of his condition at the time, would not have let him play.) Nevertheless, for much of the Republic of Tennis there was sufficient evidence to declare that the Federer World Domination Tour is finally winding down. Players, fans and commentators have been repeatedly asserting that the gap—the canyon, really—dividing Federer from his colleagues is closing. Speaking about Federer after the Australian Open, Djokovic's mother, Dijana, went so far as to crow, "The king is dead! Long live the king!"
We can forgive Dijana her exuberant calls for regime change. Her ambitious son, after all, is the likely heir to the throne. But the overall eagerness to see Federer toppled at age 26 is mystifying. Federer has, unquestionably, ruled tennis for five years. But he's been a benevolent despot. Here's a guy who plays stylish, graceful, precise tennis. For all his success he still suffers from an anorexic ego. (How many other stars would enter doubles draws just to help out their partners?) Federer's reverence for tennis history is such that he was once reduced to blubbering tears when Rod Laver presented him with a trophy. So long as this guy's the king, who in his right mind would want to witness an act of regicide?
Could it be that in our reflexive urge to root for the underdog, we overlook the virtues of peerlessness, the rare beauty and joy of watching an athlete performing at an ethereal level? We all like the unpredictability of competition, but shouldn't unrivaled excellence count for something too? When Federer goes on one of his monthslong winning benders, there may not be much suspense in the outcome of the matches, but there's still drama. It just resides instead in how he'll win, how his genius will manifest itself.
Fans of men's tennis, in particular, ought to be more appreciative. Before Federer's uninterrupted reign the ATP went through an era of any-given-Sunday parity. It was a disaster. Between 1999 and 2003, 10 different players enjoyed a stay in the rankings penthouse, sometimes for only a week. When Carlos Moya, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Lleyton Hewitt, Juan Carlos Ferrero and other less-than-transcendent figures were batting the top ranking back and forth, fans (to say nothing of ATP executives) would have contemplated a return to wooden rackets if it would have yielded a Tiger Woods--style superpower. Now that he's here, some get sick of him—over-Fed, as it were.
In assessing Federer's underwhelming start to the year, equal doses of perspective and history are in order. In this, his 215th straight week at No. 1, Federer still holds a sizable lead in the ATP rankings. He has still won six of the last 13 ATP events he's entered. And last spring Federer went through a similar slumplet, losing in four straight tournaments. But before the Cassandras could finish their dire pronouncements, Federer rallied to beat Rafael Nadal on clay, reached the French Open final and defended his titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. On Monday night, before a capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden, Federer played his best when he had to in beating Sampras in a three-set match that was entertaining, if three-quarter speed.
In a perverse way the current hysteria is testament to just how good Federer is. When you've won 90% of your matches since 2004 and taken 11 of 17 majors in that time, you set the bar at vertigo-inducing heights. So much so that when you lose two consecutive matches—to two top prospects, while apparently battling mono—many are ready to toe-tag your career. That's flattery. "Winning every other week, I lose a set and people say I'm playing bad," Federer noted at the Australian Open. "So it's my own mistake, I guess." Sampras agrees. "He's created a monster," he says. "I even told him, 'You have to understand, they need a story, Rog.'"
If these recent losses reveal anything, it's that some players have finally arrived ready to confront the Man. For too long, opponents seemed afflicted with a form of Stockholm syndrome, oddly reverential and complimentary toward their tormentor. James Blake is among the many players who admit to struggling to summon animosity toward Federer. "He's genuinely a friendly guy," says Blake, who is 0--8 lifetime against Federer. Djokovic and Murray—both 20 and not exactly encumbered by modesty—aren't as awed. "Considering the results this year," Djokovic sniffed last week in Dubai, "I expected Murray to win [that match]." How Federer responds to the brash arrivistes is a plotline worth following this year.
Federer's Victory Tour will, of course, end one day. But we'd be better off savoring the best player of all time, especially since he's vowed to play at least through the London Olympics in 2012. Don't unload your shares of Federer LLC quite yet. Think of this current dip as a market correction. Possibly a recession. But a crash? Hardly.