Without Peer

Sept. 17, 2007
Sept. 17, 2007

Table of Contents
Sept. 17, 2007

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Life of Reilly

Without Peer

In winning his fourth straight U.S. Open crown and 12th Grand Slam title, Roger Federer left little doubt that no one in the world does anything as well as he plays tennis

THE MOMENT ofconsolation came late at the 2007 U.S. Open, but it was not for Roger Federer'slatest victim. This one was for the crowd, for the 25,230 unsuspecting fans whohad come to Flushing Meadows to take in a New York spectacle, watch some tennisand overpay for food and drink, and who suddenly found themselves lacking. Thisone was for those who'd tracked Federer's elegant ride into history for thelast two weeks, who'd seen him rise to every challenge with otherworldly calmand brush aside all comers like lint off a lapel.

This is an article from the Sept. 17, 2007 issue

"Congratulations, Roger!" one miserable soul had yelled after one ofhis wins. "I hate you!" Who wouldn't feel inferior when faced with suchimperious talent? Federer's opponent on Sunday, the dynamic and doomed NovakDjokovic, had dubbed Federer "the untouchable one" and was now, strokeby hapless stroke, proving the point. After a while it became impossible not toscan all the famous faces in Arthur Ashe Stadium and engage in pop culture'snewest reality show: Roger Federer Is Better Than You.

There satOscar-winning actor Robert De Niro, rocker Gavin Rossdale and mogul DonaldTrump. Sorry, boys, but here's the truth: Federer plays tennis better than youact, rock and mogul. But don't worry. Plenty of boldfaced names paraded to theOpen—Chevy Chase, Liza Minnelli, James Taylor, Christie Brinkley, Vera Wang,Michael Bloomberg, Charles Gibson—and they too came up short. With his 7--6,7--6, 6--4 victory in the final, the 26-year-old Federer has won four straightU.S. Opens to go with his five consecutive Wimbledons, has taken 12 Grand Slamsingles titles in just five years and is only two away from Pete Sampras'srecord of 14. Hey, Tiger, with your 13 majors over 11 years, relax and join theclub. You'll have to search long and hard to find anyone who does something aswell, with more style and less effort, as Federer plays tennis.

"A lot oftimes you don't understand how he can do it," says the 2007 U.S. Openwomen's singles champion, Justine Henin. "The way he covers the court, it'slike he's never forcing his game. He's everywhere. His attitude neverchanges—winning, losing, if he doesn't play well—he's very calm. He is going tobe the best player ever. I don't see anyone who can stop him now."

No one does, andthe ease of his conquests can be daunting for the rest of us mortals. Afterall, Federer won this major—just as he won Wimbledon in July, just as he wonsix others—without a coach. "I don't need to sit down and talk about anopponent for an hour," he said after sweeping aside No. 4 Nikolay Davydenkoto reach his record 10th straight Grand Slam final. "Takes me basically 15seconds [to come up with a game plan]. I know everything I need toknow."

So when thatmoment of consolation came Sunday, with Federer up two sets to love and leading4--3 on Djokovic's serve, who could blame the fans for reacting the way theydid? At 30--all, Federer raced to net, homed in on a sure winner—and, like anySunday hacker, dumped his forehand volley into the net. The crowd sent up acelebratory roar, the loudest of the match. Federer was shocked, but how couldhe possibly understand? If only for a second, there was this comfortingrevelation: He's human too! It didn't last, of course. Two games later Federerpunished Djokovic for caving on the seven set points he had squandered in thefirst two sets, breaking him with the same vicious backhand that had torn upevery other opponent this fortnight, and reclaiming the U.S. Open title and thecrowd's collective awe.

"It'simportant that people respect what I do, and I think over the past couple yearsthat has happened," Federer said late Sunday night. "There were times Ifelt people were like...." He shrugged. "It was a bit strange. But nowI almost have the feeling [they know] they're watching greatness. Especiallyafter that fifth Wimbledon, that really put me in a different league. ThatWimbledon and this U.S. Open are going to change a lot of things."

The Open has longbeen the tennis year's defining event, and this fortnight was no exception.Both Federer and fellow No. 1 Henin—who scooted to her seventh Grand Slam titlewithout dropping a set, rolling over Svetlana Kuznetsova 6--1, 6--3 in lastSaturday's final—emerged as the class of their respective tours. After againraising his game just enough to dispatch a frantic Andy Roddick (now 1--14against him) in straight sets, Federer walked off the court, bumped into theCEO of his racket sponsor and giggled, "Did you enjoy it? Me too!" Hehad no idea that, just minutes before, Roddick had stalked into the locker roomscreaming, "F------ A, Andy! F---! F---!" And Federer cared not at allwhen, despite the effort by some reporters to clarify, Roddick inflated one ofFederer's benign postmatch comments into an insult and cursed, snapped andfumed his way through his press conference.

Indeed, headinginto the final stretch, it seemed the Open would be permanently marred by thechurlish exits of its homegrown heroes. Serena Williams cemented a reputationfor unsporting self-delusion when, after getting trounced by Henin 7--6, 6--1in the quarters, she said Henin had hit "a lot of lucky shots." Eventhe more charitable Venus Williams, victim of Henin's superior conditioningand—yes—power in her 7--6, 6--4 loss in the semis, took some of the gloss offHenin's win when she complained afterward about a mystifying dizziness. Venus,said her mother, Oracene Price, learned that she had anemia after Wimbledon,and she was afflicted with a form of vertigo throughout the hard-court season;Price wants her daughter to get a complete medical workup. But until thedoctors' diagnosis, Venus's complaint comes across as another example of aWilliams sister's refusing to concede a loss. After all, Henin played alltournament with shoulder problems and asthma. "I'm surprised," Heninsaid, rolling her eyes at Venus's excuse. "I had some breathing problemsfor a couple of months, but much more the last two, three days. I saw thedoctor also. I could say I wasn't 100 percent, but I was fighting on everypoint."

But by then, andfrom the most unlikely of places, the Open had already found the antidote tosuch pettiness. Last Thursday night, after easily beating onetime No. 1 CarlosMoya in the quarters, the 20-year-old Djokovic launched into hilarious oncourtimitations of Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal. Djokovic's spot-on impressionsof Sampras and Federer had grown into YouTube staples over the fortnight. Atthe request of USA Network's Michael Barkann, Djokovic hiked up his shorts,minced to the line and served up a perfect Maria, followed by a leaping,flexing, wedgie-digging Nadal while the Ashe Stadium crowd, and his shockedparents, howled.

Djokovic hadplayed in the tournament's best match—a five-set epic against Radek Stepanek inthe second round—and his raucous corps of Serbian fans had jump-started thecrowds, but for him to deliver one of the best postmatch scenes in Open historywas another thing entirely. With the men's tour still reeling from a gamblinginvestigation concerning Davydenko, Djokovic's singular ability to combinelevity with grim purpose, to hit winners from every angle and to spark membersof his entourage to tear off their shirts and hurl them into the crowd after hewon, imbued what has become an increasingly saccharine event with some of thatold-time Flushing Meadows chaos.

But the No.3--ranked Djokovic, who had beaten Federer last month in Montreal, was morethan a circus act, and Federer knew it. His hands shook and were cold to thetouch before Sunday's match. "I do ask myself the question, How long isthis run going to last?" Federer said. "And the more I win, the more Iask myself. But I didn't come here to lose in the final. I came towin."

Federer outplayedDjokovic on nearly every big point, won his third major of the year and passed11-time Slam winners Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg on the alltime list. "I'mchasing down Sampras," Federer said afterward—and he's already got ananswer for people, such as Sampras himself, who question the level of hiscompetition. "I disagree," Federer said. "I think the depth [on themen's tour] is much better now, 1 to 100." The competition might lookweaker, he said, simply "because I've taken all the Grand Slams with Rafa.If [Marat] Safin or Roddick and all these other guys would've gotten more,people would think there is much more depth now. But they didn't. Because I'vetaken them all."

In other words,world, take your consolation where you can. Federer has no rival, not really,not anywhere. And he's ready to make the case, with his game and with hismouth, until you understand.

"He is going to be the best player ever,"Henin says of Federer. "I don't see ANYONE WHO CAN STOP HIM now."


Serving It Up

Read Jon Wertheim's rundown of the 50 Things WeLearned at the U.S. Open.


PHOTOPhotograph by Manny MillanCLUTCH PERFORMER In the final Federer summoned his best tennis at critical instances to hold off crowd favorite Djokovic (opposite).PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON[See caption above]PHOTOCLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGESBATTLE CRY Henin beat both Williams sisters en route to winning her second U.S. Open.