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Federer hasn't regressed, but the others have finally caught up

It was one of the great shots of the year. It was the kind of shot that, not so long ago, had the likes of Rod Laver and John McEnroe calling Roger Federer the best they'd ever seen. The Rogers Cup title was on the line, between rainstorms in Toronto on Sunday night, so it couldn't have come at a better time.

The shot brought no reward. Andy Murray didn't just return it, he answered with conviction. That is the essence of Federer's plight as he tries to regain superiority on the ATP Tour. It's not so much that he has regressed; an elite group of contenders has caught up.

This was a deuce point at 6-5 of the second set, Murray just two points from victory. He'd been serving out of his mind, and now came a searing blast well wide of Federer's forehand. With a desperate lunge, Federer somehow managed to get full force behind a laser beam placed perfectly down the line. He spanked that thing -- an "unbelievable" return, as ESPN analyst Darren Cahill described it.

Watching replays of that shot, I thought back to priceless moments at the U.S. Open, when Federer's hardcourt brilliance was so astonishing to behold. Ever so casually, blending instinct with skill, he'd perform feats of sheer magnificence. There were no answers back then; opponents were left wondering if they'd actually witnessed such a thing. Even Andre Agassi, perhaps the ultimate master of hand-eye coordination, said Federer "plays the game in a very special way. I haven't seen it before. It's crazy."

Things are different now. None of Federer's contemporaries possess the elegance of Agassi, Laver or McEnroe, but they are strong, fast, fearless, and beneficiaries of the latest in power-tennis technology: Rafael Nadal, Tomas Berdych, Robin Soderling, a few others on occasion, and now Murray, who until Sunday had never beaten Federer in a final.

Somehow, Murray raced into position to field Federer's epic return, and with a single stroke -- a sharp, cross-court backhand -- he rendered it meaningless. In an instant, he regained control of the point, which he eventually won, and then he clinched the match with another big first serve.

This 7-5, 7-5 victory was a crucial development in Murray's maturity, and Federer didn't seem particularly crushed afterward. He'd been up against a superb player at the top of his game. An equal. It is just such equality, at the highest level, that lends so much promise to the upcoming U.S. Open.

There are times, without question, when Federer reveals a vulnerability unseen during his peak years. Serving with a game point at 5-5 in the first set, Federer found himself caught between notions, settling on a bizarre forehand chip -- not a drop shot, more of a sidearm punch -- that settled horribly into the net. It would up costing him the game, and eventually the set.

Still, fans witnessed the essential Federer in Toronto. In his soul-satisfying win over Berdych in the semifinals, Federer closed it out with a flourish. After a fierce baseline exchange, Berdych hit a looping, on-the-run forehand that gave Federer a bit of respite. His response was a delicately sliced cross-court backhand that barely cleared the net. Berdych isn't quite so menacing when forced to scramble, and the match ended as his off-the-shoetops backhand drifted long.

Federer was in such good spirits afterward, he broke up the press room with a bit of whimsy. Asked about his relationship with new coach Paul Annacone, he answered, "It's very romantic. You don't go to candlelight dinner every night. I have a wife, you know."

As it happened, Sunday's final placed Annacone in an awkward position. As a development coach for the Lawn Tennis Association in England, Annacone has worked with Murray in the past. He chose not to sit in Federer's box for the sake of neutrality, and for those exasperated by the tedious procession of coaches on both tours, with all the attendant publicity, it was refreshing to witness an important final contested by two coach-less players. (Murray is going it alone, with his mother, Judy, after dropping Miles Maclagan last month.)

"I just want to enjoy playing my game, sort of express myself how I want," said Murray, whose semifinal victory over Nadal made the title especially sweet. "Obviously, I'm without a coach now, so it's a little bit different, but I'm enjoying myself out there. I'm playing a bit freer, going for my shots more. I just felt calm on the court all week, one of the best weeks I've had. I played free-flowing tennis and didn't get too nervous."

Perhaps Judy Murray has more influence than it appears. She has long coached players in Scotland, and she knows her son better than anyone. Murray had retreated into a shell after losing the Australian Open final to Federer, playing key matches in a swirl of indecision and dubious body language. That was the case right up to last week's tournament in Los Angeles, where Murray took a disheartening loss to Sam Querrey in the final.

Using his mom's measured demeanor as inspiration, Murray came out firing against Federer, who looked almost overwhelmed for a spell. Once the match settled into a captivating ebb and flow, Murray found solace in his penetrating groundstrokes and perhaps his best-ever serving performance, considering the circumstances. As he served out the match at 6-5, he responded to a break point with a thunderous, 137-mph ace, then another at 140 mph to gain his first match point.

That one didn't work out so well, Murray netting a feathery backhand drop shot. It was the second match point that brought Murray's glorious response to vintage Federer, and the latest sign of a new age dawning in men's tennis. The U.S. Open cannot arrive too soon.

* * * * *

Making clever use of tape delay, ESPN shifted back and forth between two rain-tormented finals -- Murray-Federer and the Maria Sharapova-Kim Clijsters match in Cincinnati -- as if it was all happening in real time. And why not? It made for compelling television.

As Clijsters climbed back from the brink, fighting off three match points in the second set and going on to win, 2-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2, the lasting impression was her unerring precision under duress. Among today's players, only Serena Williams compares to Clijsters when it comes to "zoning" momentum from the baseline. (And as we saw in last year's U.S. Open semifinals, even Serena can be powerless to stem the tide.)

Two things stood out, though, on Sharapova's side. She has become utterly fearless on her second serve, often removing only a fraction of the pace, and it's a risky proposition. Double-faults proved damaging in her loss to Victoria Azarenka in the Stanford final, and although Sharapova came up with some shockingly huge second serves against Clijsters -- including a 110-mph bullet for a 2-0 lead in the second-set tiebreaker -- she lost her edge moments later with two double faults. The second of those, brazenly hitting out as she trailed 5-4, was a notion too bold for the occasion.

Most notable of all, though, were the sounds of silence near the end of Sharapova's downfall. Down 2-1 after being broken in the third set, and disconsolate over an ever-worsening injury to her left foot, she suddenly fell quiet. No shrieking on every shot. By then, I'm sure thousands of viewers had tuned out. They invariably do (as I've heard from countless friends and readers) at some point in a Sharapova match. My wife was among them on Sunday, muttering "either scream or play tennis" as she left the room.

And yet, behold: not a sound from Sharapova as the final games wound down. Frustration undoubtedly played a part, but it's not as if she was helpless out there. She uncorked a few big winners, to the sweet accompaniment of the birds and breezes.

I ask you, Maria, on behalf of countless tennis fans everywhere: Is it really so hard?

* * * * *

Final word on the U.S. Open Series: Can anyone explain it? Do fans even know, or care, that it exists? The USTA goes to great lengths defending the setup, and some of the players take it seriously, but it's little more than manufactured news for the public, far removed from the relevance of Grand Slam events.

Most telling of all: ESPN is a big player in the U.S. Open Series. It carried the finals of both Toronto and Cincinnati, with plenty of coverage during the week. On Saturday, the top four men in the world were contesting the semifinals. Sharapova and Clijsters were hammering their way toward a confrontation. On ESPN's SportsCenter that night, there wasn't one word about tennis.

It got worse, too. The Sunday night SportsCenter is an extended, 90-minute version, and not a single highlight was shown of the Murray/Clijsters triumphs. Endless chatter about the horrid NFL exhibitions, zero tennis. One can only be baffled by a network that will broadcast an event, then pretend it never happened.

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