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SURE, THEY had seen him before. They had watched him play his ethereal tennis and win the last four U.S. Open singles titles and conduct himself in a way that lent dignity to the proceedings. But the New York City crowds had never connected with Roger Federer. Admired him? Yes. Here, after all, was a man who elevated sport to performance art. Adored him? Not so much. � Yet there is, as they say, a wisdom of crowds. They tend to have a sixth sense for how to comport themselves. They know when to simply sit with their eyes wide and jaws slack and when to cheer like hell to carry an athlete to greater heights. Heading into the 2008 U.S. Open, the final Grand Slam tournament of the year, Federer needed such a boost.
After dominating tennis for the last four seasons, the Swiss maestro was, if not in free fall, in a state of decline. He'd won only two of the 14 events he'd entered this year—rinky-dink tournaments at that—and had most recently faltered in the Olympic singles draw, a loss that left him in tears. One suspected that he had still not recovered (and might not ever) from his defeat in the seismic 2008 Wimbledon final against his chief rival, Spain's Rafael Nadal. After a record 237 straight weeks he had recently relinquished his top ranking to Nadal, and throughout the summer many of the pundits speaking and writing about Federer sounded like coroners toe-tagging his career.
So when Federer arrived in New York, he was an instant fan favorite, generating far more support than he'd ever received when he was winning ritually. On the first night of the tournament the USTA held a ceremony in Arthur Ashe Stadium honoring prior champs. It was Federer—not Rod Laver or Chris Evert or even New York's own John McEnroe—who got the lone standing ovation. Then, as Federer wafted through the draw, his legion of supporters (Federeralists?) grew with each match. Eventually there were so many fans swaddled in the Swiss flag, with its white cross on a red background, that you'd be forgiven for thinking a lifeguards' convention had broken out.
By Monday night, after Federer had beaten Andy Murray in the final, 6--2, 7--5, 6--2, to win his fifth straight U.S. Open championship and salvage his season, he had all but taken his rightful place alongside Billy Joel, Woody Allen and Rudy Giuliani as a Gotham icon. As Federer had remarked earlier in the week—while wearing a track suit that, fittingly, read nyc 2008—"I feel a little bit like a New Yorker now."
WHILE THIS was the 13th Grand Slam singles title of Federer's gilded career, one short of tying Pete Sampras's alltime record, it might have been the most critical. In addition to avoiding his first Slamless year since 2002, Federer sent a clear message that those who have anointed Nadal as the sport's new king might have been a bit premature. "This is like Roger saying, 'I'm not done yet, guys,'" says McEnroe. "This was a big step-up event for him. You think this guy doesn't have a ton of pride?"
As Federer was besieged with questions about his demise, he downplayed his poor results, almost to the point of sounding delusional. Asked about his frustrating season, he said, "It hasn't been that frustrating, to be quite honest." Questioned about his demotion to No. 2, he was uncharacteristically immodest: "One or two is always pretty much the same thing. The change I feel is fans are really supporting me and telling me I'm still Number 1 and still the best."
For all his denials, Federer had been taking his decline seriously. If not quite Tiger Woods retooling his swing, he was making subtle changes. Remember the self-reliant champion who didn't even need a coach? At the U.S. Open, Federer had an entourage to shame Vincent Chase: trainer, best friend, girlfriend, agent, parents and coach, as well as the Swiss Davis Cup captain. "The more eyes, the better," he explained to the Swiss media. Remember Federer, the purist who despised instant-replay technology? In New York he challenged more line calls than any other player in the men's draw. Remember the decorous, buttoned-up persona? Last week he offered a medley of fist pumps, yelps and, to his eternal embarrassment, a celebratory foxtrot. "Oh, my God," he says. "I was a bad dancer."
But essentially he won by doing what he does best: playing varied, all-court tennis, serving well, using his athleticism to chase down balls and, of course, ripping his share of crowd-pleasing, tell-me-you're-kidding winners. Against Novak Djokovic in the semis, Federer returned a smash with a spin-laced overhead of his own, a circus shot that warranted still another standing O.
And unlike at other events this year, he played opportunistically. After cruising, sometimes sloppily, through his first five matches without having to face a top 20 opponent, Federer performed brilliantly against the third-seeded Djokovic, a self-enamored Serb who memorably dissed Federer as "vulnerable" earlier this summer. And Federer sustained that level in the final against the versatile, surging Murray, the Nadal-slayer, to win his 34th straight match at Flushing Meadow. "I'm back in the race," Federer says, "and things aren't as bad as everybody's saying."
IF THE org chart in the men's game suddenly isn't clear anymore, the hierarchy in the women's game may finally be coming into focus. Like an awkward, moody teenager, the WTA Tour has had a rough transition year. One top player, Belgium's Justine Henin, abruptly retired in the spring; the most commercially successful star, Russia's Maria Sharapova, has been sidelined with a chronic shoulder injury (and spent last week not in New York but in physical rehab in Arizona); the current It Girl, Serbia's glamorous Ana Ivanovic, took over the top ranking in June and then misplaced her confidence. The state of flux was such that six women had a chance to emerge from the Open with the top ranking.