It was the last of many happy returns. On match point of Sunday's U.S. Open final, Roger Federer pivoted a step to his left and cocked his racket. As Lleyton Hewitt's serve arrived, Federer met the ball and brushed an immaculate slice backhand. Two strokes later Hewitt sent the ball fluttering back, and Federer sized up a forehand that would strafe the backcourt as it rocketed out of reach. It was just another brilliant shot for Federer, but it completed his 6--0, 7--6, 6--0 dissection of Hewitt and gilded one of the most majestic years in the history of men's tennis. The best player had won the tournament, and--for the moment, anyway--the sport's firmament seemed secure again.
Before Federer's coronation these championships had been rough on the notion of order. Quite apart from the residual gusts of various hurricanes, which transformed Arthur Ashe Stadium into a vortex, the winds of change had blown in odd and unexpected directions, culminating on Saturday night when ninth-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova became the tournament's most surprising winner of the Open era. It was hard to blame the two trophy presenters who mangled the champion's name. Before Kuznetsova (kooz-NET-so-vuh), a winsome 19-year-old, became the third straight former Soviette to win a Grand Slam tournament this year, she was best known for playing doubles alongside Martina Navratilova. "But that's sports," Kuznetsova said. "Funny things can happen." Nyet kidding.
The fickle winds buffeted the top U.S. players in particular. At the crepuscular age of 34, Andre Agassi had a legitimate chance to win his ninth major. His quarterfinal match against Federer, however, took place in siroccolike conditions, and Agassi succumbed in five awkward sets over two days. Next to fall was Andy Roddick, the defending champion, who was, of all things, overpowered--by Sweden's Joachim Johansson, a player whose aspirations were so modest that he booked a golf vacation for last week. Roddick was so distraught after the loss that he followed up five sets of tennis with 13 self-flagellating laps (roughly 21/2 miles) of running through the tunnels beneath the stadium.
The following day Lindsay Davenport's likely valedictory was cruelly spoiled. After winning the first set of her semifinal against Kuznetsova in 21 minutes, Davenport pulled up lame (with a strained hip flexor) and lost what may well have been her final Grand Slam match. The hits kept coming when Jennifer Capriati lost a third-set tiebreaker in the semis for the second year in a row, this time to Elena Dementieva, a player whose serve could be clocked with a sundial. Asked whether destiny had taken the week off, Capriati said sullenly, "Maybe there's no such thing."
Truth is, Capriati was lucky to be in the semifinals. She had met her old nemesis, Serena Williams, in a rollicking quarterfinal match in which both players unloaded baseline haymakers from bell to bell. Early in the third set, after Williams tagged a backhand well within the sideline, chair umpire Mariana Alves inexplicably overruled the line judge and called the ball out. Alves's gaffe may not have been the worst call in tennis history, as the New York Post put it with typical understatement, but it was a shabby piece of officiating, and it unhinged Williams. After getting the business end of three more bad calls in the final game and committing her 57th unforced error, she fell 2--6, 6--4, 6--4.
While Alves's ineptitude marred what was otherwise a sensational match, it amplified calls to introduce instant replay to tennis. And unlike so many other proposed changes--to curb runaway racket technology, play four-game sets, alter court dimensions--this one has a good chance of flying. Replay technology "has come a long way," says USTA chief executive Arlen Kantarian. "That gives us optimism to introduce it, possibly as early as next year."
As Alves was spirited from the court to a room that was off-limits to journalists, Williams was left to ponder her fading career. The dominant player in tennis barely a year ago, she has won only one tournament in 2004 and is now ranked No. 10 (still two spots higher than her floundering sister, Venus). Much as Serena's outside interests are to be admired--"I always considered myself an entertainer, as opposed to just your normal athlete," she proclaimed last week--she is discovering that tennis is a jealous mistress. I will not be ignored. Treat the sport as an avocation, and there are consequences, not least of which is an inability to hit the ball in the court consistently.
Kuznetsova, on the other hand, is so motivated that she heads to the practice court immediately after every match--even her 6--4, 7--5 win over Dementieva in the Open final. Propelled by a pair of thick legs that leave little doubt that she comes from a family of cyclists (her brother, Nikolai, won a silver medal in the 4,000-meter team pursuit at the '96 Games), she pulverizes the ball, particularly with her forehand. "She hits harder than Venus or Serena," says Navratilova. "[Her title] won't seem strange in a few years. She's the real deal."
The same can safely be said of Federer. He is winning majors at a Samprassian clip, three this year alone, and members of the tennis kaffeeklatsch are fast exhausting their inventory of superlatives to describe his virtuosity. Throughout the tournament John McEnroe pronounced Federer "the best player I've ever laid eyes on." As other ATP players gathered around locker room TVs to watch Federer's matches--marveling as if he were a superhero, not a colleague they could reasonably hope to beat--they used words such as sick, scary and nasty.
In a game filled with players who spray balls--sometimes dazzlingly, sometimes catastrophically--in the manner of Jackson Pollock, Federer plays impressionistic tennis: vivid, stylish strokes mixed with brilliant flourishes. Athletes speak of entering "the zone," the blissful space where they can do little wrong; Federer has taken up residence there. Against Hewitt, a No. 1 player not long ago and the sport's top retriever, Federer lost five points in the entire first set. Over the match, 31 of his 35 ventures to the net were successful. "He's setting the standard for everyone right now," says Tim Henman, Federer's semifinal roadkill. "He's so difficult because he's so complete."
Here's worse news for the rest of the field: Federer now has poise to go with his equipoise. As recently as 15 months ago he was considered a hypertalented choker, prone to early-round losses at big-ticket tournaments. "I look back," he says, grimacing, "and what upsets me is not that I lost but that I left the court knowing I had more in me. That's a terrible feeling I never want to experience again."
After some stern conversations with himself, he's become tennis's most mentally fit player. Sunday marked the 11th straight time he has played in a final and left with the trophy. Hewitt was the 17th consecutive Top 10 player Federer has beaten. "People underestimate the role of confidence and self-belief in tennis," Federer says. "When you feel you can trust your game, it makes all the difference in the world. I'm proud of myself for reaching that point."
Not that there's much credit to disperse elsewhere. Federer plays without a coach, relying on himself to make adjustments, schedule practices, devise tactics. Nor does he (gasp!) have a full-time agent. His girlfriend, Mirka Vavrinec, a former tour player, handles his day-to-day affairs, and a boyhood buddy, Reto Staubil, serves as a hitting partner. Not much of an entourage for a global icon. "I guess I've discovered," he says, "that I like being my own boss."
So after winning the final point on Sunday, he turned to his support box, the most sparsely occupied patch of seats in the stadium, and let out a yell. Then he dropped to his knees, rolled over on his back--his first clumsy move of the tournament--and flashed an expansive smile. As Great Balls of Fire, a fitting selection on all counts, blasted over the P.A. system, Federer lifted his arms, as if gauging the breeze. The sky was cloudless, and the wind had died down.
Athletes speak of entering "the zone," the blissful space where they can do little wrong; Federer has TAKEN UP RESIDENCE THERE.