It wasn't simplythat he'd lost; it was how. Here was Roger Federer, King of Tennis, pittedagainst his rival, Rafael Nadal, in the French Open final at Roland Garros.With a victory in Paris, Federer would capture the second leg in hisquest--hardly quixotic in his case--to become the first man since Rod Laver in1969 to win the Grand Slam. It was an occasion pregnant with significance andpressure, one that presented an opportunity to affirm greatness. And Federerfailed to meet the moment. His tactics were questionable. His backhand brokedown. Intimidated, it seemed, by the Spaniard's sheer physicality, Federerallowed a look of fear to steal across his normally impassive face.
Nadal won in foursets that June day, and the result put men's tennis in a strange place.Federer, not yet 25 at the time, had been on the verge of overtaking Laver andPete Sampras to claim the sport's mythical title of GOAT (Greatest of AllTime). And yet the Swiss star had now lost five straight matches to Nadal.GOAT? Hell, how could he even be the bona fide No. 1 now, when the guy rankedNo. 2 owned him? The tennis salon that had always applauded Federer'sindependence was now attacking his decision not to employ a full-time coach.Worse, his courage was called into question. After the French final MatsWilander, a former champ who's not exactly a McEnroevian loose cannon, told SI,"Rafael has the one thing Roger doesn't: balls."
An ornery athletewould have flicked his middle finger at the world. A self-deluded one wouldhave rationalized the loss. Federer is neither. He was as aware as anyone thata challenge had been issued. "It was up to me," he says, "torespond."
What followed wasa five-month stretch of utterly dominating tennis. In London in July he exactedrevenge on Nadal in the Wimbledon final. In New York City in September he beatAndy Roddick to win the U.S. Open for the third straight time. In Shanghai inNovember he garnished his year by winning the Masters Cup. After thatdispiriting Sunday afternoon in Paris, Federer went 46--1 (the one blemishbeing a two-set loss to Andy Murray in Cincinnati in August). And Federer didso while playing with style and grace and artistry. Tennis doesn't truck muchin statistics, but it's worth noting that he didn't rank among the top 10players in aces per match. He did, however, rank first in break points saved.Translation: His success is predicated not on power but on poise. (How's thatfor balls, Mats?)
All the whileFederer has embraced the the ancillary duties of being the world No. 1. Heblogs on the ATP's website. He's a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. He conductspostmatch interviews in four languages. Men's tennis may have lost its mostmagnetic star when Andre Agassi retired in September, but when Agassi talked of"leaving the sport in good hands," it was clear whom he chiefly meant.Federer is tennis's ideal figurehead during this global era. In his case, easylies the head that wears the crown.
When the womenheld their year-end championships last month in Madrid, three players had ashot at finishing 2006 at No. 1. The ATP has no such parity. Long beforeFederer closed out his banner year and restored his dominance, he had nearlydouble the points total of Nadal, the next-closest player. Observers haveexhausted the store of adjectives to describe Federer's on-court brilliance.Praise now comes from all corners. "It's a tough proposition to beat a guywho doesn't have a weakness," says James Blake, the top-ranked American.Amid all the fawning and affection, it's easy to forget that were it not forFederer's eloquent response to a challenge--perhaps the ultimate earmark of atrue champion--he might be considered a goat instead of the GOAT.