Gustavo Kuerten is unlikely to recall this year fondly, hovering as he is on the fringes of the top 30. But the former world No. 1 from Brazil did pull off a feat that no other player achieved in 2004: He beat Roger Federer in a Grand Slam tournament. Were it not for that result in the third round of the French Open, Federer might well have won the Grand Slam--tennis's equivalent of batting .400--something that no male player has done since Rod Laver in 1969. As it stands, Federer turned in the most dominating season since John McEnroe went 82--3 and won two majors 20 years ago.
There were abundant tennis highlights in 2004. The Russian Revolution turned into the Russian Occupation as former Soviettes won three of the four Grand Slam singles titles for women and currently fill six of the top 13 WTA rankings. Andre Agassi, at an age (34) when other players are gearing up for the seniors tour, still played deep into big-time events. Andy Roddick set and reset serving-speed records, inaugurating some points with lasers exceeding 150 mph, and helped lead the U.S. to the Davis Cup final. But ultimately all this was mere background music to Federer's virtuoso performance. Here it is early autumn, and already we can declare Federer our player of the year. By a landslide. "I don't like to come across as cocky," he says, "but it's been a very satisfying year. I still can't believe everything I've done."
Federer plays tennis for the soul, with artistry and style. But his excellence is also expressed in cold, rational numbers. Through Monday his 2004 match record was 64-6, and he had locked up the year-end No. 1 ranking. He won all nine tournament finals in which he appeared. As proof of his versatility, he won more than one title on every major surface. Plus, his rivalries with other stars were like the rivalries that chain saws have with trees: Federer won his last 17 matches against players ranked in the Top 10.
For all of his manifold talents, the key to Federer's success might be his movement. With uncanny anticipation and a few graceful strides, Federer not only retrieves the most difficult shots but also returns them with force and precision. If Willie Mays's glove was where triples went to die, Federer's racket is where opponents' winners go to become setups. "It's so hard to get him out of position," says world No. 3 Lleyton Hewitt, whom Federer pasted in the U.S. Open final last month. "He just doesn't give you any easy points."
Were Federer from Milwaukee or Scranton or Fresno (not Basel, Switzerland), he would occupy a penthouse suite in the American sports pantheon. Even so, his profile in the U.S. is rising. His days of going unnoticed at airports and hotels have, he laments, passed. His appeal is so broad that in the course of a few days recently, he accepted dinner invitations from Kirk Douglas, James Lipton and Wolfgang Puck. "I'm not doing this to be famous," he says, "but anytime people tell you they appreciate your work, it makes you feel good."
Given that Federer just turned 23--the age at which most male players enter their prime--and that his game is essentially weakness-free, the tennis cognoscenti are within their rights to wonder whether he will someday win the mythical title Best Ever. Laver, for one, thinks it's a distinct possibility. "He has all the ingredients," Laver says. "With the way he plays under pressure, he has every chance of real greatness."
For now, be sure of this: Another year like his banner 2004, and the Fed will continue raising interest rates.
A Major Partnership
Federer wasn't the only player to win three majors in 2004. Spain's Virginia Ruano Pascual (near right) and Argentina's Paola Suàrez took the Australian, French and U.S. Open doubles titles. Neither player is a singles star, but their partnership is fast becoming one of the most successful in women's tennis history. Since beginning their alliance in 1998, Ruano Pascual and Suàrez have won more than two dozen titles, including seven majors. Amazingly, they have appeared in the doubles final at 10 of the last 11 Slams.
Neither player has much pop on her serve or is a gifted volleyer. Instead they often pin themselves to the baseline, relying on passing shots and lobs to win points. They compete like hell and have an on-court synchronicity that eludes teams composed of superior individual players. "I can't explain it," says Suàrez. "Maybe we are showing that there are different ways to play good doubles."