Federer at the US Open

23:09 Thu 06 Sep 2007
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I haven’t been watching the US Open live, but I’ve been catching highlights online. And once again, it’s the Roger Federer show. I’ll be pretty stunned if he doesn’t win it. If you think someone else will win, go put money on them, I’m sure you can get good odds… Andy Roddick played what was apparently some of his best tennis against Federer on Wednesday night, and still lost—in straight sets.

Nadal was knocked out by Ferrer, although I didn’t think that Nadal would beat Federer on a hard court anyway. Djokovic was the cool “anti-Roger” pick coming into the tournament, having beaten Federer recently in Montreal. But Federer is different at Grand Slams, and his not winning it now would be a colossal upset.

Highlights of the Federer-Roddick quarterfinal are available on YouTube. You can tell, even from those, that Roddick is playing extremely well. He’s hitting 140mph serves, being very aggressive, hitting the ball very hard. And he sticks with Federer for most of it, but just can’t quite break through. Federer’s touch, reflexes, accuracy, speed, and tactical vision are simply too much. One of the key points in the first tiebreak comes when Roddick blasts another 140+mph serve in and starts to come in behind it, but Federer simply blocks it back right to the baseline, forcing Roddick off balance, and then finishes the point off. Furthermore, he makes it look so casual, like returning a ball going that fast is no big deal, already looking ahead to where the next shot is likely to go.

He’s just too good. I noticed recently that the Wikipedia page for Pete Sampras, the holder of the most Grand Slams titles of all time and a player acknowledged to be possibly the best ever (I hated his play style, myself), has a long section devoted to “Records and achievements”. Federer? The list of his records requires an entire page on its own.

He achieves all this with a playing style that is most often described as “beautiful”. This isn’t a word you hear bandied about in men’s sports too often. Yet it fits Federer’s game rather well (another word might be “ridiculous”). I never saw Laver, Rosewall, Pancho Gonzales, Bill Tilden or Bjorn Borg play (apart from some highlights here and there), so I can’t really compare Federer to them. But I have no doubt that Federer is the best player of the modern era (after wooden rackets went out, essentially). He’s a much more complete player than Sampras. Agassi just isn’t in the same class, although if Federer never manages to win the French Open, Agassi has a claim at being a more versatile player. McEnroe had one year (1984) where he was unbelievably dominant, but never recaptured that form, whereas Federer has been doing more or less that for the past three or four years. Lendl had a period atop the game like that too, but didn’t reach the same heights.

If Federer is the best in the modern era, I think that makes him the best ever. The players today play from such a young age, with such dedication, that it’s hard to see the level of competition being as high in the past. Nevertheless, unless Federer wins all four Slams, and unless he does them in a row, it will be hard to automatically place him above Laver.

I think Federer has another good shot at winning the French Open next year. Nadal will again stand in his way, defending and expanding on his own status as the best clay court player of all time.

Incidentally, I’ve seen a lot of comments online disparaging Andy Roddick for not winning any Slams since 2003, and for losing to Federer all the time. Many of these comments claim that Roddick is overhyped and a player who’s just not that good. That’s pretty ridiculous. Roddick is an extremely strong player with some amazing gifts as far as power shots go, and is no pushover. If Federer were not around, I’m quite sure that Roddick would have won more Grand Slams than he has. That goes for some of the world’s other top players, too. Federer defines the current tennis age, and the other players have to deal with running into possibly the best player of all time at every Grand Slam… which must be dispiriting. (Apart from his excellence as a player, I also think you have to give Roddick credit for, after being demolished by Federer at the Australian Open, managing to give this interview.)

I’ve watched quite a few Federer highlights on YouTube, and they’re worth looking for. This David Foster Wallace essay from last year is also absolutely worth reading.

Unless something completely unexpected happens, in the next few years Roger Federer will seize the record for the most Grand Slam victories. Eventually he’ll start to decline, but with his game he might be competitive into his thirties in the way that Agassi was. It could be a really long time before anyone at his level comes along again.

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