Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Federer is still the man, but for how long?


The result was inevitable. But it was still good television.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic pushed Roger Federer to the limit Sunday evening, succumbing to the world's undisputed No. 1 in three highly contested sets — the first two were decided in tiebreaks.

After two-plus hours, the sight was very familiar. Roger Federer celebrating a Grand Slam victory, No. 12 on his way to breaking Pete Sampras' record of 14. But Federer had to survive this championship match. There was no relaxing for him until it became lucid in the final set that no upset was in the cards.

In the first set, Djokovic had five set points on serve, but Federer fought them off to get the break. Two double faults by Djokovic in the tiebreaker combined with a couple huge Federer serves gave the Swiss the set.

Djokovic came right back in the second set, breaking Federer and taking a 4-1 lead. However, he couldn't close out the set once again, first giving up a break to make it 4-3 and then losing two set points — one on a 126 mph Federer serve and the other on a poor forehand that should have been a winner.

Djokovic's window of opportunity closed, Federer — with a rare fist pump — dominated the tiebreak, 7-2.

Game, set, match.

No surprise, but it was far from easy.

A closing gap
It could be said that Federer was outplayed for two sets Sunday. He clearly was the better player in the third and final set (6-4), but Djokovic appeared to have the upper hand during the opening two sets (not that anyone believed he'd win them).

You have to consider, though, that the kid is just 20. For him to have beaten Federer would have been downright precocious. He had to be nervous — especially when he had those set points. He had to consider the stage he was on (U.S. Open final in front of a sellout crowd in New York City).

Federer was far from his best Sunday, and we all know that when he's on his A Game, you, your cousin, nor your cousin's best friend has a chance against him. As good as Federer was when the points mattered most, he didn't win his 12th Grand Slam so much as Djokovic lost it.

The underdog simply committed too many unforced errors in crucial situations. Too many backhands into the net. Not good enough net play (the one part of his game he really needs to hone).

Again, Federer probably had his B+ game, but this seemed to be the case — a bit uncharacteristically — throughout the Open. He lost two sets prior to the final, something that hadn't happened since the 2006 French Open. Andy Roddick took Federer to two tiebreaks only to lose them both, just like Djokovic.

Is the winner of five straight Wimbledons, four straight U.S. Opens and two consecutive Australian Opens slipping?

Nah, I won't go that far — winning a tournament made up of 128 players is never easy — but it's plausible that the field of young guns chasing him is catching up. First, Rafael Nadal — not your typical only-good-on-clay-courts Spaniard — took him to a breathtaking five sets in the Wimbledon final, Federer's first (and only) five-set encounter in a Grand Slam finale.

And now Djokovic, a year younger than the 21-year-old Nadal, showed that on a given day he can compete and even threaten the best in the world. What has to (maybe) scare Federer just a tad is that the aforementioned players should only get better and become mentally tougher in the years to come.

Federer, on the other hand, is at his apex. He's in great shape. His backhand's as pure as ever. Although not known for his serve, when he gets on a roll (like he did toward the end of the second set Sunday, when he won eight straight first serves), it can be deadly.

But I don't see much room for improvement. Although maybe we'll see some variety in his victories. Some comeback wins would create even more drama.

Federer breaking Sampras' record is almost a near certainty. As long as he doesn't step in front of a trolley or contract a rare disease, he should break the record in the next two years (if not in 2008). Just consider that he's won an incredible 12 of the past 18 Grand Slams (four of which have been the French Open, which he's never won). He has needed just 34 Grand Slam tournaments to reach a dozen victories compared to 40 for Sampras.

What Roger Federer is doing is unprecedented. Unbelievable. Unfettering.

But how long it lasts is a whole other question. After 22-year-old American John Isner took the first set from Federer before dropping three straight in the third round, it was clear the 6-foot-9 University of Georgia graduate is an up-and-coming player.

Like Djokovic. Like Nadal has been for sometime now.

Federer will probably keep winning for a couple more years. But domination? There's a good chance that'll become a word of the past.


jbo said...

Do you think the very short life span of tennis players serves as a detriment or attritube to the sport? It seems like nobody lasts long enough to allow for widespread familiarity, but at the same time you could argue that like college sports it keeps everything fresh.

Jake Lloyd said...

Generally, male players are in their prime until about 30, although Andre Agassi played competitively until he was 36. So we're talking 10 years or so. I don't think it's a bad thing. You constantly have new stars entering the scene, but at the same time — as demonstrated by Federer — a great player can make his indelible mark in less than half a decade.