The number that best summed up Roger Federer in his prime? There are plenty to choose from: the record 237 consecutive weeks at No. 1, the 13 major titles, the 10 straight Grand Slam finals and 19 straight semifinals. But let's try this number: zero. Because the most astonishing thing about Federer's four-year run atop pro tennis, from February 2004 to August 2008, may be the difference between his exalted estimation of his own skills and what he actually did. There was none.
For those inclined to deflate the self-adoring, though, Federer didn't present an easy target. His offhand tone imbued the most conceited comments—from the frequent "I was always so talented" to this reading of the crowd at his 2007 U.S. Open matches: "I have the feeling they're watching greatness"—with genial detachment. Hearing Federer speak of himself was like listening to a professor describe, while paring his fingernails, the work of his most brilliant student.
And even if some were irked by such statements, could they really dispute them? Federer was only echoing the tributes of John McEnroe and Rod Laver, who hailed him as the game's new gold standard; Pete Sampras, who predicted that Federer would shatter his record of 14 major singles titles and finish with 19; and Andre Agassi, who in 2005 said Federer "plays a game in a very special way. I haven't seen it before." Everyone agreed: Federer would end up the best male player ever. His talent was indeed extraordinary. Greatness was exactly what we were seeing.
Then, late last spring, all that abruptly changed. Federer woke up in Paris on Sunday, June 8, with history in his grasp. Besides having won 12 Grand Slam titles, he was about to play his third straight final at the French Open, the lone major he had never won. If Federer's career had ended right there, before he faced world No. 2 Rafael Nadal, a convincing case could be made that he had already surpassed Pistol Pete, who never reached one singles final at Roland Garros.
But Federer's career didn't end there. By sundown that day he had suffered the worst loss of his 10-year career, a 6--1, 6--3, 6--0 thrashing. Hardly anyone had seen it coming; though Nadal was the three-time defending French Open champion, Federer had beaten him on clay the year before in Hamburg—by a score that also included a third-set bagel—and had won the Australian Open, the last five Wimbledons and the last four U.S. Opens. "I can beat Nadal on all surfaces: clay, grass, indoor, hard," Federer said in the summer of 2007. "And once you beat a player three or four times, you know you can beat him every single time."
In retrospect that statement marked the first disconnect between the Great One's words and his deeds. Federer hasn't beaten Nadal on clay since. Worse, at last year's Wimbledon, Nadal beat Federer, winner of 65 straight matches on grass, on what amounted to his home court. "A disaster," Federer said after the epic five-set final. He salvaged his year—and maintained a shaky dominion on hard courts—by winning his fifth straight U.S. Open after Nadal was eliminated by eventual finalist Andy Murray. Then, on Feb. 1, Nadal beat Federer again, 6--2 in the fifth set, to win the Australian Open and raise the flag over Federer's last redoubt, asphalt. Federer wept at the trophy ceremony. "God, this is killing me," he said.
It was the tennis equivalent of the British surrender at Yorktown, where an empire retreated and a band supposedly played The World Turned Upside Down. In completing one of the great reversals in sports history, Nadal hadn't just dethroned King Roger, he had harried him all over the world and dismantled his mightiest weapons.
Nadal has now beaten Federer in five straight finals and 13 of their last 19 matches, and if they meet again in the final of the 2009 French Open, which begins on May 24, Nadal will be the prohibitive favorite. What was once a great sports rivalry has turned into a rout. How can Federer be deemed the best ever when he might not be the best of his own era?
But more immediate questions still haven't been answered. How did this takedown happen? What, exactly, did we just see?
It has the feel of classical myth. Twenty-eight years ago the gods decided to create the perfect tennis player, tall and lean and as light on his feet as a blown feather. They gave him everything: great hands, a stiletto serve, ground strokes that the sport's hero, Sampras, called better than his own. The perfect tennis player could speak four languages. He was polite to officials, patient with the media and so gracious in victory that opponents almost didn't mind losing to him. After a while, this began to gall the gods, who are, after all, capricious beings. They don't like to be bored. And, as always, they had given themselves an out.