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As Good As They Get

Sept. 18, 2006
Sept. 18, 2006

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Sept. 18, 2006

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As Good As They Get

In a U.S. Open that celebrated the titans of the past, Roger Federer cemented his Tigerlike preeminence, and Maria Sharapova fulfilled her lavish promise

Early Sundayevening, nearing on 6 p.m., the chill of fall settling for the first time overNew York City: That was the moment when the impossible seemed possible. No,more than possible. It was happening; you could feel it and see it. There wasAndy Roddick, sitting at courtside like an unmedicated teenager, legs pumping,head nodding up and down. There was his coach, Jimmy Connors, staring fromacross the court, his eyes locked with Roddick's, his head bobbing too. A newvibration thrummed under the music at Arthur Ashe Stadium, some 25,000unbelievers passing along this sudden germ of hope: Could it be? Roddick hadjust taken the second set from

This is an article from the Sept. 18, 2006 issue

Roger Federer,made the Great One look nearly ordinary. Now Roddick was stalking back onto thecourt, tugging his shirt, wielding his racket like a club. Federer sat sippinga bottle of water, looking stunned. The noise grew louder. Roddick waited.

So here, now, isthe thing to know about 25-year-old Roger Federer, the most dominant athletealive--save for, maybe, Tiger Woods. What you see and feel is not what he seesor feels. Sure, the final of the 2006 U.S. Open would now go at least foursets, maybe five; sure, the crowd verged on turning fully against Federer,verged on turning Roddick into some unstoppable Son of Jimbo. But Federer tookhis sips slowly. "I was actually feeling quite calm," he said later,cradling the Open trophy in his lap. "I knew: If this match turns, I guessI'm going to go five--and I had no problem doing that. It's that feeling ofbelief: I'm ready. Years ago I would think, Oh, no. Five. That's disaster. ButI was not nervous. He needed that set more than I did."

Thus it went inthe third set, Roddick pressing with his need and Federer pressing back withhis cool, and at the last moment, when he had worn Roddick down with aresurgent serve and his signature collection of stinging forehands, Federerbroke his challenger with an angled chip backhand that few players couldimagine striking. And as Federer steamed through the fourth set, sealing the6--2, 4--6, 7--5, 6--1 victory, he occasionally looked up to the players' boxto see his special guest: Woods himself, who had taken time out of his own Yearof Winning Marvelously to meet Federer for the first time and support him.Though Woods's presence saddled Federer with a unique pressure--made him feel"awkward," he said--he liked it. Early in that fourth set, just whenFederer began hitting freely, Woods stopped cheering long enough to say,"He's just gone to another level."

It was that kindof recognition that would more than make up for any awkwardness. After all, thetwo men's seemingly inexorable drive to greatness had become a hot topic duringthis Open. By winning his ninth Grand Slam title (and third of the year),Federer broke a tie with four Hall of Fame players, including Connors and thejust departed Andre Agassi, and he now seems a lock to reach Pete Sampras'srecord of 14 majors. His romp through the rain-soaked fortnight at FlushingMeadow made him the first player ever to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Openback-to-back three years running and the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 toreach all four Slam finals in a calendar year. Yet greatness can be a lonelybusiness; how can "mere mortals," as Tim Henman called his cowedtourmates, possibly relate? "That's something I haven't felt before: a guywho knows how it feels to feel invincible at times," Federer said ofWoods.

But Federer feltit Sunday, drinking beer with Woods in the locker room after the match. Woodschatted with Federer's startled parents in Switzerland by phone, and Federerjoked that he'd like to visit Woods at a golf major and see how Tiger wouldlike having his nerves rattled by the presence of a fellow world-beater. Butthe best part was when Woods asked Federer about his devastatingly elegantfourth set, and, as Federer would recount later, he replied, "'I felt I wasnot going to miss a shot anymore, and everything Andy tried I knew I had ananswer for.' And Tiger knew exactly what I was talking about. It was a verystrong moment for me."

And it wasperfectly in keeping with this U.S. Open's theme. What with the opening-nightceremony honoring Billie Jean King, the retirements of Agassi and MartinaNavratilova and the reappearance of Connors as a tennis sage, the tournamentunfolded in an unusually thick cloud of history. There was the usual comparingof young talents with legends, and if 19-year-old Maria Sharapova, who beatJustine Henin-Hardenne 6--4, 6--4 last Saturday night to win the women's title,doesn't have enough majors to join the pantheon, she showed plenty of reasonswhy she may soon. Still, it's Federer's game that Agassi, King and Navratilovacall the best they've ever seen, and there's no one else in professional sportswho so consistently reduces his opponents to happy losers. "If I lose tohim in eight Grand Slam finals, that's fine," Roddick said in his postmatchpress conference.

"That'sbulls---," said Connors, watching on a TV in the players' lounge. "Idon't accept that." Indeed, to the man who once called a chair umpire"an abortion" and tried to make every match a mugging, the Era of GoodFeeling in men's tennis must seem bizarre. Roddick tried hard to gin up hishostility throughout the fortnight, snarling at reporters and sniping at"experts" like John McEnroe, and the result was his best Grand Slamshowing in a year. But Federer may well be the friendliest No. 1 in tennishistory; he invited Roddick to have his picture taken with him and Woods in thelocker room. Aside from Rafael Nadal, who beat Federer in the French Openfinal, no one seems too bothered by losing to the man. "They're intimidatedby him," says U.S. Davis Cup captain Pat McEnroe. "There's not thatsense in the locker room: 'We've got to take this guy down.'"

Sharapova willnever be viewed so benignly. This is partly because the women's tour pulsateswith the resentment and carping common to competitive ecosystems, and it'spartly because of Sharapova herself, who has a reputation for haughtiness andlacks Federer's gift for making even the most arrogant statement soundpalatable. Indulging her Audrey Hepburn phase with a sparkly black dress--HollyGolightly with a grunt--Sharapova sailed through the draw with an air ofrightful presumption. After disposing of top-ranked Amélie Mauresmo (winner oftwo majors in 2006 and all four of their previous matches) by a devastatingscore of 6--0, 4--6, 6--0 in the semifinals, Sharapova took one look at her1--4 record against Henin-Hardenne and said, "I look forward to beating heragain."

It has been along time since Sharapova felt so good. Injuries to her chest and rightshoulder ravaged the second half of her 2005 schedule, and an ankle sprainlimited her court time last spring. Now healthy and moving better than ever,Sharapova drove the curiously passive Henin-Hardenne behind the baseline with acrackling serve and relentless ground strokes, broke her easily and rolled tovictory. It was the kind of dominant run that people have expected sinceSharapova broke out as the sport's golden girl with her '04 Wimbledon title.Backed by an omnipresent Nike commercial ("I'm so pretty!" one male fanscreamed early in the first set) and hounded by questions about herrumored--and denied--relationship with Roddick, Sharapova never wavered in herfocus as she took apart the two women who, until now, had seemed to be alone atthe top of the game. "She just hates to lose," tour veteran RennaeStubbs said of Sharapova. "As rich as she is, she doesn't have to lift afinger the rest of her life. But this is what makes her tick:competitiveness."

Henin-Hardenne,the seventh woman ever to make the finals of all four majors in one year, hasmore in common with Sharapova than meets the eye. She combines toughness withan uncanny knack for infuriating her rivals. She began the year by making anenemy of Mauresmo. Henin-Hardenne retired early in the second set of theAustralian Open final last January with stomach cramps, denying Mauresmo thesatisfaction of winning match point; the two women no longer speak. In New YorkCity, Henin-Hardenne ended her Grand Slam campaign under a similar cloud,charged with gamesmanship during her three-set win over Jelena Jankovic in thesemis. Down a set and a point away from a 2--5 deficit in the second set,Henin-Hardenne bent over in seeming pain. But once Jankovic undid a captivatingperformance by arguing with the chair umpire and quickly unraveling,Henin-Hardenne's grimaces disappeared.

"For methat's not quite fair play," Jankovic said afterward. Henin-Hardenne shrugsoff such attacks. "It makes me laugh," she said. "I would never dosomething like that--faking that I have pain."

Like her Belgianrival, Sharapova couldn't care less whether her peers--or anyone else outsideher circle--like her. And like Roddick, she can be alternately charming, wittyand nasty. During the changeover after the first set of the final, her hittingpartner, Michael Joyce, was caught by TV cameras signaling to her to eat abanana and holding up four fingers to remind her to drink fluids. Suchcommunication is a clear violation of the game's rules (though U.S. Opentournament referee Brian Earley, who fined Sharapova $1,000 for receivingcoaching from her dad, Yuri, in 2004, said he didn't consider Joyce's actscoaching), but Sharapova wasn't repentant. She joined Yuri in the players'lounge for an impromptu defense after the final. Afterward Yuri walked awaysaying, "All I know is I'm going to the gym tomorrow morning first thing,and, Maria, you're more than welcome to join me."

Fiddling with hergold cellphone, Sharapova didn't look up. "Yeah," she said. "Thatsounds great." She added, under her breath, "There's no f------ chanceI'll be in the gym tomorrow." Then she bopped down the hallway to her pressconference, snapping her fingers and singing, "I'm coming out! I want theworld--to--know, that I--love--you--so!" She begged the press for a"positive session tonight, please. Por favor." Finally, 40 minuteslater, she said, "There's so many things written about me and said andopinionated on and washed and turned, and I look at it and I'm like, 'Ha, ha.'But moments like these, when you're holding the trophy? I'm like, 'You canwrite whatever you want, buddy, but I just won a Grand Slam.'"

Federer's win hadno such edge to it. On his second match point he cracked a running overhead,screamed and fell to his back. After walking off the court, it hit him thatjust two sets had separated him from raising all four Grand Slam trophies in2006. What could be better? He felt, yes, invincible, and though he likedhaving someone around to share that feeling, he couldn't help adding,sheepishly, "I'm disappointed I'm not the only guy who has that."

No need toapologize. You can bet Tiger knows exactly how that feels too.

TOPSPIN RETURNS

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Early in the fourth set, just when Federer beganhitting freely, Woods said, "He's just GONE TO ANOTHER LEVEL."
TWO PHOTOSBob MartinYOU'VE BEEN SERVED Federer and Sharapova kept the heat on their opponents with their strong deliveries.PHOTOBOB MARTIN (RODDICK)RUNNING ON EMPTY Roddick made his best showing in a major this year, but by the fourth set against Federer he was out of gas. PHOTOMANNY MILLAN (SHARAPOVA)FIST AND SHOUT Sharapova's joy was unbridled after she finished off Henin-Hardenne to win her second major. PHOTOHARRY DIORIO/GETTY IMAGESFULL HOUSE Not that they're counting, of course, but Federer has three U.S. Open trophies to his new friend Tiger's two.