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The Artful Roger With his graceful and flawless game, Roger Federer announced his arrival as the world's best tennis player by winning the Australian Open

Feb. 09, 2004
Feb. 09, 2004

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Feb. 9, 2004

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The Artful Roger With his graceful and flawless game, Roger Federer announced his arrival as the world's best tennis player by winning the Australian Open

By L. Jon Wertheim Special reporting by Tom Tebbutt in Melbourne

The 2004 Australian Open resembled nothing so much as a
dueling-banjos competition: virtuosi with stringed instruments
playing a two-week game of Can You Top This? For all the grace
notes struck, one player performed with more flourish than all
the others. Game. Set. Matchless. Roger Federer. ¶ By the time he
finished off Russia's Marat Safin in Sunday's final, Federer had
served notice that he is the sport's new leading man. Federer's
provenance might be Swiss, but his game is cheddar: sharp and
without holes. He can execute every shot in the book--and a
good many that aren't. He is equally adept at hitting with power
and with touch; he is as cozy at the net as he is on the
baseline; he relishes playing on slow clay as much as he does on
the bouncy rubberized asphalt of Melbourne Park. And he performs
with a casual elegance that makes Pete Sampras look like a
grinder. "He might be the smoothest, most talented player I've
ever laid eyes on," says John McEnroe. Safin lamented to the
Russian press after the final, "I just lost to a magician."

This is an article from the Feb. 9, 2004 issue Original Layout

Quite apart from his prodigious skills, Federer, 22, is
redefining the idea of a top player. He won in Melbourne without
benefit of a coach, having parted ways with Peter Lundgren in the
off-season. "It was strange at first," Federer says, "but I think
there was a benefit to figuring things out for myself and being
more responsible for my preparation." And though he's exceedingly
marketable--handsome, charming, multilingual--he has no agent to
drum up endorsement deals or shake down tournament promoters for
appearance fees. "The more people you have around you," says
Federer, "the less it becomes about the tennis."

If this Australian Open marked the official arrival of Federer,
as of Monday the world's top-ranked player, it also inaugurated a
belle epoque in the men's game. For the better part of a decade,
the ATP has been bedeviled by relentless parity and
charismatically deficient champions. Fans can now pick from a
cluster of top players--Federer, Andy Roddick, Juan Carlos
Ferrero, David Nalbandian and the ageless Andre Agassi--who are
sure to last deep into the second week of Grand Slam tournaments,
as each did in Melbourne. What's more, these stars differ as much
in temperament and personality as they do in playing style. "You
really have to adjust to all the guys from match to match," says
Federer. "What might work against Andy doesn't against Andre or
Juan Carlos, which makes things interesting."

Better still, it looks as if Safin, 24, is the latest superpower
to join the axis. Beset by a wrist injury and a crisis of
confidence, he was sidelined for much of 2003 and came to
Melbourne riding a seven-match losing streak. A former No. 1 who
has always been as long on talent as he is short of fuse, Safin
entered the Open ranked No. 86. The ensuing renaissance was
dramatic. His six victories in the Antipodes included five-set
classics against Roddick--whom Federer supplanted as No. 1--and
Agassi. Until the final, Safin's ball striking was unremittingly
accurate (against Agassi he became the first player to serve more
than 30 aces in a match without double-faulting), and his
demeanor was uncharacteristically mellow. A notorious tantrum
thrower, Safin broke only three rackets during the entire
tournament. A notorious bon vivant, he spent his downtime at the
zoo. "It was really fun," he said wryly.

The virtues of the men's game were thrown into sharp relief by a
drab women's event. After a rash of injuries denuded the draw,
the last two players standing--literally--were Kim Clijsters and
Justine Henin-Hardenne, both of Belgium. On the surface theirs is
a compelling story: two players from the same diminutive country
repeatedly squaring off in Grand Slam finals. Unfortunately, the
tennis is so inartistic that it leaves fans pining for
Williams-Williams encounters. With Greg Norman inauspiciously
cheering her on, Clijsters performed her ritual disappearing act
in a high-stakes match and lost yet again to her countrywoman,
6-3, 4-6, 6-3. That the match was marred by a series of bad line
calls and one egregious overrule was oddly fitting.

Still, credit the 21-year-old Henin-Hardenne. The top-ranked
player, she has filled the WTA's leadership vacuum and won three
of the last four majors. (One hopes that somewhere--on a training
table or on the set of her latest film--Serena Williams was
watching.) For all the high praise Henin-Hardenne garners for her
slingshot backhand, her real gift is the ability to summon her
best tennis when it matters most. Once known as a choker, she has
become the WTA's most mentally fit player. In Melbourne she
tallied more unforced errors than winners; that she still took
the title bespeaks her Hardenned resolve. "It's been a great
evolution," she says.

Federer's evolution traces a similar arc. His abundant talent and
symphonic game have always been there. His ability to rise to the
moment has not. Until his breakthrough at Wimbledon last year, he
had a nasty habit of losing early in the biggest events. Even
now, creeping doubts challenge him as much as any opponent does.
"I may wear a poker face," he says, "but trust me, I get nervous
inside."

That is why this title was so gratifying. Having demonstrated
that his mental demons are now roadkill, Federer is free to amass
a whole mess of majors. When Safin hit his last errant shot on
match point, Federer dropped to his knees, his mask of calm
melting into a smile that wouldn't desert him for hours. Tennis's
magician was in two places at once: Down Under and on top of the
world.

COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY SI IMAGING; BOB MARTIN (4)