"That Was As Good as It Gets" So said a certain bald superstar from Las Vegas about the play of the lavishly talented Roger Federer, who elevated the men's game in 2003

December 29, 2003

Roger Federer's arms went in opposite directions, as if he were
conducting a symphony. Which, in a sense, he was. On this humid
November night in Houston, midway through the third set in the
final of the Masters Cup, the ATP's year-end lollapalooza,
Federer was playing tennis that ranged from merely sublime to
absolutely perfect. Without putting too fine a point on it, the
22-year-old from Switzerland was taking the (graphite) whupping
stick to his opponent, Andre Agassi. ¶ Federer tossed the
chartreuse ball into the black night. The moment the ball reached
its apex, he swatted a second serve, unremarkable for its
velocity but laced with all species of spin. The ball speared
the center line of Agassi's service box and began kicking in
the direction of Galveston. Agassi, the game's most skilled
returner, blocked the ball back. Federer, carried forward by
the momentum from his serve, picked the return out of the air,
effortlessly flicking a backhand volley from behind the service
line, and continued his anabasis toward the net. Agassi then
lined up a heat-seeking backhand passing shot, the kind that
usually ends points in his favor. But as the ball whistled
crosscourt, Federer, by now a few feet from the net, simply
turned to his right and expertly knocked off a reflex volley.
Now His Baldness changed tactics and unspooled a topspin lob.
In the manner of Willie Mays pursuing that deep fly off Vic
Wertz's bat, Federer turned to retrieve the ball, twisting his
body with each step until his back faced the net. At the right
nanosecond, he leaped and snapped his wrist, assaying a
backhand overhead--the tennis stroke with the highest degree of
difficulty. The ball howled past Agassi and crashed against the
blue canopy behind the court. "Game, Federer. New balls,"
deadpanned the chair umpire.

It was a baroque painting of a point, four strokes by Federer
that showcased the manifold qualities required to succeed at
tennis's highest level: athleticism, accuracy, cunning, power,
concentration. And, in his case, grace. Agassi froze, and then a
look of awed resignation registered on his face. "That," he would
say admiringly after the match, "was as good as it gets."

In the commentary booth, Mary Carillo, normally so glib and
insightful, was at a loss for words. "Wow," she finally managed
after emitting a high-pitched you-gotta-be-kidding-me giggle.

After pulling off an equivalent piece of virtuosity, many NBA
players would have mugged for the courtside camera, unleashed a
trash-talk soliloquy and begun an exaggerated strut downcourt.
Many NFL players would have danced the most exuberant of
jitterbugs, to hell with the 15-yard penalty for excessive
celebrating. Many baseball players would have flicked the bat
away and begun a protracted, self-congratulatory circling of the
bases. Federer's reaction after completing this masterpiece? He
swabbed his chin and walked to the baseline as though he had done
nothing more remarkable than mailing a letter.

It was a fitting way to end 2003, the rare year in which tennis
generated more light than heat. Andy Roddick became one of the
few tennis prodigies to live up to his hype. With his smashmouth
game and a new coach, Brad Gilbert, Roddick won the U.S. Open and
finished the year atop the rankings heap. The women's No. 1,
Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne, beat a legion of bigger players
thanks to her ravishing one-handed backhand and her outsized
heart. Pete Sampras, arguably the greatest player ever to draw a
breath, retired from the sport. His tearful farewell ceremony was
a final rebuttal to the critics who had groused for years that he
wasn't sufficiently emotional. Martina Navratilova, at an age
(47) that often eclipsed the combined lifetime of her two
opponents, won seven WTA doubles titles. Meanwhile, the usual
cartoon characters who too often hijack the attention--Anna
Kournikova, Damir Dokic, Richard Williams--were, mercifully,
unaccounted for. Still, in the end it was Federer who played the
scene-stealing role in '03.

A quick checklist: Federer's forehand is technically perfect. His
one-handed backhand is pure liquid. He fires winners off both
flanks with no discernible bias. He massages his volleys, pummels
overheads, picks half-volleys off his shoes and guides them to
nooks and crannies of the court that most other players have yet
to discover. His serve is Samprasian, a silky delivery predicated
more on placement than on power. He covers the court as if it
were glazed.

But if he is flashy with his racket, he is a pure classicist in
every other respect. Despite finishing the year ranked No. 2 and
winning $4 million in prize money, he doesn't have an agent, much
less an entourage. His tennis attire, a gray-and-white ensemble,
hardly screams, Hey, everybody, look at me! His lone trademark is
a terminally unstylish headband that resembles a tightly wrapped
bandage--applied, perhaps, to prevent any of that genius from
seeping out.

Like so many other prodigies, Federer has sometimes seemed as
much cursed as blessed by his native gifts. For years he
habitually failed to live up to expectations on the sport's
grandest stages. He routinely lost in the first round of majors,
most recently at the 2003 French Open. "I was mentally weak," he
concedes. "I'd expect it to come maybe too easily, and when it
didn't, I'd get frustrated. I'd play worse, and before I knew it,
the match was over."

He finally opened the spigot of his vast potential on the lawns
of Wimbledon last summer. Playing at a different level from the
rest of the men, Federer ran roughshod over seven opponents,
including Roddick--his likely rival for the next decade or so.
("Maybe I can play like that sometime," Roddick said of Federer's
game.) When Federer lifted the trophy, he was helpless to stop a
deluge of tears. He tried three times before finally mustering a
victory speech. "It's so great!" he yelped between sobs.

Federer's 2003 breakthrough subjects him to a new set of
expectations, of course. Given that he won titles on all four
playing surfaces in '03, what is to prevent him from winning the
Grand Slam--all four majors--in '04? If he continues playing at
the insuperable level he achieved in Houston, why can't he make a
run at Sampras's singles records? Federer shrugs it all off. "You
have to be realistic," he says. "I haven't even gotten to be
Number 1 yet."

He'll get there soon enough. But for now, we'll raise a glass to
Roger Federer less for the future than for the year that was.
Here's to his refuting the tired complaints that men's tennis has
devolved into an exercise in brute force. Here's to his having
comported himself like a professional. Here's to his proving
that, in tennis anyway, style and substance need not be an
either-or proposition.

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY GRASSMASTER Finally living up to his early promise, Federerplayed flawless all-court tennis to win his first Wimbledonsingles title.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)