By Jon Wertheim
May 06, 2009

I have a theory that Roger Federer "jumped the shark" when he played the exhibitions with Pete Sampras last year. I know he did it as a nice gesture to interact with an idol and possible GOAT, but it seems he had nothing to gain by it and it perhaps made him doubt his own excellence and GOAT status. What do you think?-- Daniel Fries, New York

• Just this past weekend, my cousin served up this same theory. Federer had an exceptional 2007, but it was still clear that Rafael Nadal was gaining on him. Instead of spending the offseason repairing his body or working on nuances to counter his rival, he goes on an exhibition tour. While Federer was certainly enriched, as was IMG, it came at a real price. The timing suggests as much, anyway. Federer started off 2008 in a hole physically, banged up and fighting mono. Plus, I wonder if these matches didn't exact a psychological cost. One envisions Federer saying to himself: "Wait, I'm struggling to beat a 36-year-old who hasn't played a competitive match since 2002, and I'm supposed to make inroads against Nadal?" It could, of course, be mere coincidence. But chart it all out and you could make a case that the "shark jumping" -- a term that itself has jumped the shark? -- started with those exhibitions.

As far as Federer's current state, the questions and comments keep coming and they're from two distinct schools. First: "Get off his case. He's still No. 2." Second: "He's cooked and we need to rethink the GOAT debate." I'll split the difference. Too many forget that Federer is not immune to laws of nature. Eventually -- especially as you reach your late 20s -- it's inevitable that the body will give in a bit and the competition will catch up. The pace of winning three Slams a year is not sustainable forever. These days Federer is merely excellent, not immortal, though some of the coverage would have you believe he's turned into a hack. A little respect for the man, please. And a little recognition that tennis careers undulate (See: Sampras, Andre Agassi, Serena and VenusWilliams, etc.) and one rough patch doesn't mean it's over.

That said, I don't think many predicted that Federer's decline would be this dramatic, that he would go seven months without a title of any size, that his groundies would desert him, that he would weep and smash rackets and generally bear only a faint resemblance to the tennis demigod of 2004-07. (Reader Blake Redabaugh of Denver has this nasty stat: Since the U.S. Open, Federer is 0-7 against Nadal/Novak Djokovic/Andy Murray.) Many of you -- and many former champions -- have suggested that Federer has deluded himself into thinking he is still the best and he can still win on talent alone. Hence, the unwillingness to hire a coach or to take a few months off to retool his game, much as Tiger Woods once did. But I wonder if the opposite isn't true: Nothing if not a realist, Federer is intensely aware of the shifting powers; his confidence is fractured, he's second-guessing himself and he still at a loss regarding how to react.

Once again Serena Williams comes off as lacking grace. Why can't she congratulate Dinara Safina and say she'll redouble her efforts, play more tournaments and earn back the No. 1 ranking? She could easily do it. Why denigrate a fellow player?-- Laura, Arnold, Md.

• I'm over it. I'm through calling out Serena on these kinds of remarks. Does one wish that her PR instincts or sense of sportsmanship were sometimes more finely tuned? Sure. But let's face facts here: We all know the identity of the best player in the women's game. And it ain't Dinara Safina. The truth is, at least half of the players in the top 10 rack up the points at smaller events, but are scared to win big matches. In Serena -- and, conflation alert, her sister -- we have a player who wins when it matters most, who stands and delivers, who will retire with double-digit Grand Slam titles. If a few impertinent, self-glorifying remarks -- however true they might be in this case -- are an unpleasant by-product, so be it.

How about a "tributito'' to Guillermo Coria, who retired last week? He was up two sets to love and two match points in his favor at the 2004 French Open final against Gaston Gaudio, but a couple of Gaudio's shots on those match points were an inch or two from being out. Coria was never the same again after that match. One wonders how much differently his life would have turned out if one of those balls were out.-- Ian Katz, Herndon, Va.

• Amen. A fine career from a player who compensated for a lack of size and power with some of the best wheels in the modern era. Sadly, he'll be recalled as much for that French Open final and his doping suspension as for his more positive achievements. Hard to sugar-coat the French Open loss, one of the great chokes in tennis history. But read this before you rope him in with drug cheats.

You address a list of the greatest competitors the sport has ever known and you don't even mention Jimmy Connors? As Jimbo himself said, "I don't really ever lose. I just run out of time."-- Dominic Ciafardini, Hong Kong

• I was only going for women. But what a great quote! I'd never heard that before. Also more than a dozen of you noted that we should have included Chris Evert on the "mental steel cage" list. Of course.

Just another thought while looking at Chris Evert's 13 consecutive years winning at least one Grand Slam title. She made the semis or better in her first 34 Grand Slam tournaments. She had a 125-match clay-court winning streak. In 1982, Chrissie was runner-up at Wimbledon, won the U.S. Open, ditto the 1982 Australian Open (at the time played at the end of the year) and the 1983 French Open. So, she won three consecutive Slams and made the final of the fourth, and yet she was still not ranked No. 1. Has anything like this even come close to happening before?-- Richard Hanson, Charleston, W.Va.

• And we thought Dinara Safina's ascent was odd! Here's another, from Carl of Chicago: Martina Navratilova had a 74-match winning streak, reached nine consecutive Wimbledon finals (1982-90), won a record six Grand Slam singles titles in a row, finished 86-1 in 1983 and lost only six times from 1982-84.

If I remember correctly, the ATP has started awarding ranking points for Davis Cup this year. With Australia pulling out of the tie against India, do the Indian players still get those ranking points?-- Haresh Ramchandani, Mumbai

• From the mouth of the Shark: Points are only awarded to World Group ties during the year and the World Group playoff in September (to get into 2010 World Group).

Caroline Wozniacki is the greatest Danish player ever? Probably not. But I don't think Torben Ulrich is either. It must be Kurt Nielsen -- twice a Wimbledon finalist. Another Dane, Kenneth Carlsen, holds the record for most losses in the first round at Grand Slams. We ROCK!-- Anonymous, Denmark

• No need for self-deprecation. Nationalized health care? An astronomically high quality of life? A trade surplus? Energy self-sufficiency? Unmitigated happiness? You're the envy of the world! And you now have Wozniacki.

Wozniacki is a very talented player (I'll watch her at Bastad in July) but to call her the greatest Danish player ever is doing a disservice to Nielsen as well as Jan Leschly, a semifinalist at the 1967 U.S. Open.-- Per Henriks, Skanar, Sweden

• Thanks. Long as you brought him up, Leschly is like the anti-Roscoe Tanner. After his tennis career, I believe he went on to become the CEO of SmthKline Beecham.

Will your new book be available on Kindle? Looking forward to reading it!-- Mike Levitt, Chicago

• Thanks for the set-up. I'll be flogging shamelessly in months ahead -- we're reduced to doing these things in a down economy -- but yes, I believe there will be a Kindle edition.

• Here's a good piece on tennis conflicts of interest.

• More opinions on the Australian Davis Cup forfeit. A sample:

Anirban Mukherjee of Durham, N.C.: "Regarding Australia not coming to India, you have to look at this from the standpoint of the average Indian. Most countries across the world wouldn't think twice about playing in England or Spain, but both of these European countries have had major terrorist strikes against them in the past few years.

"Australia cited the fact that the IPL cricket tournament had been moved to South Africa, but we're talking about a cricket tournament that spans multiple cities and hundreds of players and support staff, and not the small, concentrated set of security concerns of a Davis Cup tie.

"By virtue of timing (elections) and scale, the Indian government couldn't guarantee security for the IPL, but did not make the same statement for the Davis Cup tie in Chennai.

"Lastly, for India, this is like a good old-fashioned backhanded slap in the face. India is good enough for you to tap into its workforce, it's good enough for you to openly trade with, it's good enough for the world to consider as the stabilizing political force in South Asia, but we won't set foot on your soil with our "elite" athletes because of "security concerns." There's a bunch of not-so-nice adjectives that go with that mentality. Sitting here in the U.S., the analogy goes something like this: Would other countries seriously consider a travel ban to the U.S. because of the 200-plus cases of swine flu reported here? But if the shoe were on the other foot ..."

And in the interest of equal time:

Skip Schwarzman of Philadelphia: "A Google search for 'chennai violence election' returned a host of results. I chose these criteria because I've read about ongoing acts of terrorism in this area pertaining to the upcoming elections. Among the search results, which included a blog's four-hour-old post about Maoist rebels killing seven, was this from Reuters.

"The situation in India is different than the one surrounding the Sweden/Israel Davis Cup tie; the violence precedes the Davis Cup event in India, dramatically, and the Davis Cup does offer a target to terrorists. I am sorry that Australia chose to default, and sorry that India apparently chose not to move the tie (no confirmation of that). But the two political scenarios are not the same."

• Has everyone seen this? I love the Tony Roche "Coaching Tips" on the right panel.

• This week's unsolicited book recommendation: Richard Sandomir is back.

• It's tennis agent Tom Ross.

• Ian Rashid of London: Djokovic has a rival on the mimicry front.

• Here's an intelligent take on the WTA rankings dilemma.

Tom Gullikson will rejoin the USTA Player Development staff as a National Coach. Gullikson, the former Director of Coaching and a former U.S. Davis Cup Captain will be based at the USTA Training Center-West in Carson, Calif. He will work with both male and female players.

Jon McEnroe at the Kentucky Derby.

Monica Seles was recently asked what her father would have done had on-court coaching been permitted during her career. "I think I would have started drawing on clay and hopefully it would have been one of his cartoons and not a diagram. ... I was not an analytic player. People said, 'Oh, Steffi [Graf], play to her backhand.' No, I played her like I played everyone else. On instinct."

• The Hope College men's and UCLA women's tennis teams have been honored as April's recipients of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) National Team Sportsmanship Award.

• Stayed tuned next week for the ruling in the Dubai fine appeal.

• This week's look-alikes, from Jeff of Miami: Venus and her long-lost sister, Jada Pinkett.

Have a great week, everyone!

To order a copy of Jon Wertheim's new book, Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played, click here.

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