Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Nov. 30. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.
Fedophiles of the world, consider this a mea culpa: You were never wrong. Roger Federer certainly did deserve to be named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year at least three other times before this year, just as he deserved to have his photo featured on the cover of the magazine -- oh, a half-dozen times or so -- before finally getting a cover to himself for the first time after winning the 2009 French Open. Yes, the man has been snubbed (if, I suppose, not making a magazine cover or winning an award can be called that), because no matter how you define deserve or Sportsman, Federer has long had both words fully covered. He has won with class, won with grace, won all there is to win in a sport that is historically important, globally contested and ever-evolving. Anything in the sports/media matrix that recognizes such mastery is only his due.
Did Federer deserve the award more than those athletes who won in 2004 (when he won three Grand Slam titles and went 74-6), '05 (when he won two Slam titles and went 81-4), '06 (three, 92-5) or '07 (three, 68-9)? Who knows? The criteria for SI's Sportsman is broad, ever-morphing, and often mysterious to anyone outside the decision room. As someone who has written two Sportsman pieces -- Tim Duncan '03, and the notorious (to Fed-watchers, at least) Dwyane Wade '06 -- I can tell you that the assignment never came laden with marching orders or justification. The pick was the pick: Final, and somehow self-evident.
In essence, of course, "Sportsman" is a wholly subjective award, its dimensions shaped by time and taste and, to some cynics, vaguely powerful market demands -- though if any pick in my 16 years at SI moved the needle on circulation or advertising, I never heard of it. Sometimes it seems to be (Don Shula, Dean Smith) a career laurel, sometimes (Arthur Ashe) a humanitarian nod, sometimes (Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa) a bid to revisit the hands-down story of the year. SI's "Sportsman" doesn't necessarily mean "Best Athlete", or "Most Dominant" or "Nicest", then -- except when it does. Jailtime and blatant idiocy are the lone disqualifiers. I think.
That said, I still can't get past the idea that this year, 2009, will be Federer's last shot. He says he'll keep playing through the 2012 Olympics, and if he can pull off a calendar Grand Slam somewhere along the way to retirement, then he'll surely be back in play. But this was the year that Federer finally won a major on clay to complete the career Grand Slam, finally conquered the sport's most difficult task by winning the French-Wimbledon double, finally passed Pete Sampras' career Grand Slam mark of 14 to become, in nearly everyone's mind, the greatest player in tennis history. Federer was not the athlete who gave us the year's "Holy S---!" moment -- that was Usain Bolt -- but he's the only one who became the best ever to play his game. If that doesn't put him over the top, it's hard to see what else could.
Let's be clear, though: 2009 was hardly Federer's best year. He began it by bursting into tears after losing to arch-nemesis Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final, spent the spring harried by Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, and smashed his racket in Miami after his once-formidable forehand seemed on the verge of deserting him for good. He rebuilt his confidence enough to take down an exhausted and, it turns out, ailing Nadal in a French Open tuneup, and with the Spaniard out of the way began his trek back to No. 1 with Sunday wins in Paris and London over Robin Soderling and Andy Roddick. Neither opponent were all-time greats, and neither provided the test or drama of a Nadal or a Murray, but Federer's job is only to beat whoever's there. That he did.
Still, the fact that a year in which he reached four Grand Slam finals -- and won two -- can seem slightly disappointing says much about the sky-high standard that Federer has set during his genial reign. He won just four titles and went 59-10 in 2009, and his shocking collapse in the '09 U.S. Open final after being just two points away, in the fourth set, from beating upstart Juan Martin Del Potro, seemed only the latest, starkest signal that, at 28, he's beginning his decline. Afterward, Federer seemed uncharacteristically blasé about the loss, as if, in passing Sampras and winning the French at last, he had satisfied all his teenage ambitions -- and anything after that was just...exercise.
If, indeed, Federer no longer has the gut-burning ambition that, for more than a decade, left him so often in tears, who can blame him? There has never been a player in tennis -- much less in any sport -- who combined Sampras' athleticism with John McEnroe's oft-mysterious artistry, who won so much while pushing audiences to a higher level of fandom, who dazzled even the Tennis-Sucks! crowd not with tantrums or vulgarity but with quiet explosions of genius. It was never possible to be bored with Federer, even when he was winning easily. That, over last summer, he worked hard, adjusted his game, and came back to win when the winning came much harder, that he beat Nadal in Spain, then Murray in Cincinnati, then Djokovic in the U.S. Open semifinals, is a testament to character, a sign that real toughness always bubbled beneath the superior gifts.
Because Federer could well have faded away then, secure with his millions, his new wife and kids, his place in the game. Many were already calling him the best ever, so why not -- like McEnroe, like Bjorn Borg -- just give in?
But he didn't. No, in 2009, Federer completed the task, fulfilled the challenge issued that day, long ago, when his rare talent first emerged. He finished the job. He became the greatest. He was down and then he rose, perhaps for the final time, and he beat back the field and walked into history on the Wimbledon grass. That's what "Sportsman of the Year" is all about. Isn't it?