NEW YORK -- As always, the Nike store at the National Tennis Center is stocked with a full complement of T-shirts honoring Roger Federer.
"Rule the Empire."
"Enjoy the Show."
The slogans on the shirts have always seemed a little too belligerent and provocative -- "edgy" would be the charitable spin -- for someone of Federer's measured demeanor and almost pathological aversion to public confrontation. But this year, the slogans reek of something else: protesting too much.
In past years, Federer has come to the U.S. Open as many things. An overwhelming favorite. A defending champ -- then a two- and- three- and even four-time defending champ. A strong contender. This year he comes to New York as a ... well, what exactly? He's not a dark horse. He's not a sentimental favorite, much less the demeaning "crowd-pleasing veteran." But he's not on the short list of favorites either. That unsightly "7" next to his name, a scarlet number, is there for a reason. He is the seventh seed, his lowest designation in more than a decade.
At some level, we always knew that his pace was unsustainable, and that no player could win multiple Grand Slams each year like a ritual. We knew that once players drift north of age 30, Father Time inevitably exerts his sleeper hold. We knew that eventually, the lithe body that Federer always kept in mint condition -- still another underrated trait of his, by the way -- would eventually betray him.
Still, Federer's 2013 has been hard to watch, even for those duty-bound to practice objectivity. When an athlete declines, the first thing to go is always the consistency. But when consistency has been your stock-in-trade, it's all the more glaring. After almost a decade of reaching the second week of every major, Federer, of course, lost in the second round of Wimbledon. After Federer went years without suffering "bad losses," it's been jarring to see him on the wrong side of outcomes against various lesser lights. (Federico Delbonis, who beat Federer in Hamburg, Germany, last month, is so modest in stature that he didn't even qualify for the 2013 U.S. Open.)
Yet "inconsistency" implies the decline isn't linear, and that there can still be some bright moments. So when Federer won the Gerry Weber Open in June or fought to beat Tommy Haas in Cincinnati or played a near-flawless set against Rafael Nadal in the same tournament two weeks ago, it made it easy for him -- and the rest of us -- to envision him conjuring the magic again.
Tennis, too, can enable the hopeful. In team sports, irreversible decline can be stalled, if not altogether masked, by downshifting from everyday player to designated hitter, or by picking the right situation and transitioning from starter to specialist. Those options don't exist in tennis. Aging players are out there all exposed, no fig leaves in sight. They either win or they don't, and there is no graceful compromise.
On the other hand, in tennis, it takes only seven matches to be a winner. This week, the references to Pete Sampras' 2002 U.S. Open title have been in heavy rotation. Sampras hadn't won a tournament that year. And, like Federer, he had lost unceremoniously at Wimbledon. Then he came to New York, caught lightning in the proverbial bottle and was a Grand Slam champion once more.
After a rain-out Monday night, Federer played his first-round match Tuesday at Arthur Ashe Stadium. The fans who had come for a catch-him-while-you-can experience weren't disappointed. Federer clinically dispatched Grega Zemljia 6-3, 6-2, 7-5. It wasn't a flawless performance, but Federer gave a generally convincing impersonation of his old self. He went to the net 21 times, for instance. He won 20 of those points. There were a handful of highlight reel shots and -- more important -- poised and successful tennis on the most critical points. When he finally closed out the match, he smiled and exhaled.
One match down, six to go. He's no longer Roger Federer. But he's still Roger Federer.
After reading your U.S. Open women's seed report, I was a little confused. Could you explain what you meant when you wrote that "Serena Williams has regressed a bit this summer"? From my understanding, Serena won a Grand Slam and numerous other titles, and she is 60-4 this season. How is this demonstrating regression? Or is she expected to go the entire season undefeated?
-- Bedi, London
• Like so many great athletes, Williams is a victim of her own success. What are smashing results by objective standards can be subpar by her standards. In the spring, Williams was untouchable, simply playing a different sport from the rest of the field. From her defeat at the 2012 French Open to her victory at the 2013 French Open, she went 73-3. This summer, she lost both at Wimbledon and in Cincinnati, playing with uncharacteristic passivity in key moments. It doesn't mean we should push the panic button or that she is in a state of irreversible decline. But when you look at the second half of 2012 and the first half of 2013, I think it's fair to say she's regressed.
In your women's seed report, you wrote about Sorana Cirstea, "With Darren Cahill in her corner, she's been playing well of late," but this is inaccurate. The correct statement would be, "With Darren Cahill on court with her, she's been playing well of late." I do not expect her to perform well without on-court coaching, judging from her matches in Toronto.
-- Gilbert Benoit, Ottawa, Ontario
• We haven bashed the farce that is on-court coaching recently. (Perhaps we subconsciously deferred, knowing that a Jimmy Connors pep talk to Sharapova would have been television gold Jerry, gold!) But, not unlike grunting, I wonder if the WTA realizes how tone-deaf it is on this issue. Not only is there no value added, but it also undercuts the product. "Hey, our women can't problem-solve or manage emotions for themselves. So we permit them to summon a coach -- invariably a middle-aged male -- to lend succor and support."
Who signs off on these decisions? And who lacks the fortitude to cut bait? Cirstea had a wonderful summer and reached a career-high ranking. If I were a WTA executive, I would be greatly disturbed to know that a fan doubts whether she could play without the presence of her (male) coach. (Cirstea, by the way, won her first-round match at the U.S. Open.)
I know we shouldn't feel sorry for a 21-year-old millionaire, but really, do the tennis gods have it out for Ryan Harrison? It seems that in every other tournament, he draws Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic or some other top seed in the first round. Does the guy ever catch a gimme in the early stages?
-- Shayne, Louisville
• An esteemed player put it to me like this: "Harrison is a very good player. You need to be great now." But I agree with Shayne. Can we even form a full opinion of him when he keeps getting these draws? He has faced a top-16 seed in the first or second round of seven of the last eight majors. That's brutal.
Lenny Kravitz to kick off the U.S. Open? Seriously? For a tournament that prides itself on being an NYC tournament (of course, it's in Flushing, Queens, but no matter), you'd think it would book a local band. Throwback to the glory days? Sure, how about Blondie or Television? Maybe scratch a big check (after all, this is the USTA) and make an offer to Talking Heads. Perhaps in a nod to the aughts, call The Strokes. If they really want to be current and or hip, well, the hotbed of rock right now is a borough away in Brooklyn. Throw a rock and hit a band: TV on the Radio. The National, Grizzly Bear or, a personal favorite, The Men. Or, hey, shoot for the moon and tweet Jay-Z!
-- J.B. Portland
• We all know why Jay-Z couldn't make it. He was courting Sloane Stephens to be a client of his new sports agency.
• Warren Marcus of Potomac, Md.: "Please publicize this very sweet clip of Federer meeting a local fan here through a Make-A-Wish organization."
• Steffi Graf likes... "As the draw has it one of my favorites Sloane Stephens could meet Williams in the fourth round "
• Craig of Austin, Texas, provides today's food for thought: "Chris Evert (during Francesca Schiavone/Serena Williams): 'The noise they're making is very entertaining.' This, in one sentence, perfectly illustrates why no one should take the media seriously on the noise issue. Meanwhile, Pam Shriver won't shut up for two minutes during a Victoria Azarenka or Maria Sharapova match; yet, she says not one word during this match. Nothing. While calling another Williams match recently, she said, 'Serena let out the most beautiful scream.' The hypocrisy is astounding. The media doesn't want the noise to stop; instead, you want specific people muzzled. If you're a media favorite, however, exhibit the same behavior and it's perfectly fine. In fact, it's praiseworthy, more often than not."
• Billie Jean King released a statement in response to allegations that Bobby Riggs threw the Battle of the Sexes match in 1973: "This story is just ridiculous. I was on the court with Bobby and I know he was not tanking the match. I could see in his eyes and body language he wanted to win. People need to accept he had a bad day at the office -- just as Margaret Court did when she played Bobby. It was 40 years ago and I won the match and I am 100% sure Bobby wanted to win as badly as I did. Those who bet against me lost money but the result is the same today as it was 40 years ago."
• I wish Maria Sharapova well recovering from bursitis in her shoulder. On a lighter note, anyone else hear "bursitis" and think of this?
• Jim Marolt of Lino Lakes, Minn., has long-lost siblings: actress Kate Bosworth and Martina Hingis.