SURE, THEY hadseen him before. They had watched him play his ethereal tennis and win the lastfour U.S. Open singles titles and conduct himself in a way that lent dignity tothe proceedings. But the New York City crowds had never connected with RogerFederer. Admired him? Yes. Here, after all, was a man who elevated sport toperformance art. Adored him? Not so much. ¬∂ Yet there is, as they say, a wisdomof crowds. They tend to have a sixth sense for how to comport themselves. Theyknow when to simply sit with their eyes wide and jaws slack and when to cheerlike hell to carry an athlete to greater heights. Heading into the 2008 U.S.Open, the final Grand Slam tournament of the year, Federer needed such aboost.
This is an article from the Sept. 15, 2008 issue
After dominatingtennis for the last four seasons, the Swiss maestro was, if not in free fall,in a state of decline. He'd won only two of the 14 events he'd entered thisyear—rinky-dink tournaments at that—and had most recently faltered in theOlympic singles draw, a loss that left him in tears. One suspected that he hadstill not recovered (and might not ever) from his defeat in the seismic 2008Wimbledon final against his chief rival, Spain's Rafael Nadal. After a record237 straight weeks he had recently relinquished his top ranking to Nadal, andthroughout the summer many of the pundits speaking and writing about Federersounded like coroners toe-tagging his career.
So when Federerarrived in New York, he was an instant fan favorite, generating far moresupport than he'd ever received when he was winning ritually. On the firstnight of the tournament the USTA held a ceremony in Arthur Ashe Stadiumhonoring prior champs. It was Federer—not Rod Laver or Chris Evert or even NewYork's own John McEnroe—who got the lone standing ovation. Then, as Federerwafted through the draw, his legion of supporters (Federeralists?) grew witheach match. Eventually there were so many fans swaddled in the Swiss flag, withits white cross on a red background, that you'd be forgiven for thinking alifeguards' convention had broken out.
By Monday night,after Federer had beaten Andy Murray in the final, 6--2, 7--5, 6--2, to win hisfifth straight U.S. Open championship and salvage his season, he had all buttaken his rightful place alongside Billy Joel, Woody Allen and Rudy Giuliani asa Gotham icon. As Federer had remarked earlier in the week—while wearing atrack suit that, fittingly, read nyc 2008—"I feel a little bit like a NewYorker now."
WHILE THIS was the13th Grand Slam singles title of Federer's gilded career, one short of tyingPete Sampras's alltime record, it might have been the most critical. Inaddition to avoiding his first Slamless year since 2002, Federer sent a clearmessage that those who have anointed Nadal as the sport's new king might havebeen a bit premature. "This is like Roger saying, 'I'm not done yet,guys,'" says McEnroe. "This was a big step-up event for him. You thinkthis guy doesn't have a ton of pride?"
As Federer wasbesieged with questions about his demise, he downplayed his poor results,almost to the point of sounding delusional. Asked about his frustrating season,he said, "It hasn't been that frustrating, to be quite honest."Questioned about his demotion to No. 2, he was uncharacteristically immodest:"One or two is always pretty much the same thing. The change I feel is fansare really supporting me and telling me I'm still Number 1 and still thebest."
For all hisdenials, Federer had been taking his decline seriously. If not quite TigerWoods retooling his swing, he was making subtle changes. Remember theself-reliant champion who didn't even need a coach? At the U.S. Open, Federerhad an entourage to shame Vincent Chase: trainer, best friend, girlfriend,agent, parents and coach, as well as the Swiss Davis Cup captain. "The moreeyes, the better," he explained to the Swiss media. Remember Federer, thepurist who despised instant-replay technology? In New York he challenged moreline calls than any other player in the men's draw. Remember the decorous,buttoned-up persona? Last week he offered a medley of fist pumps, yelps and, tohis eternal embarrassment, a celebratory foxtrot. "Oh, my God," hesays. "I was a bad dancer."
But essentially hewon by doing what he does best: playing varied, all-court tennis, serving well,using his athleticism to chase down balls and, of course, ripping his share ofcrowd-pleasing, tell-me-you're-kidding winners. Against Novak Djokovic in thesemis, Federer returned a smash with a spin-laced overhead of his own, a circusshot that warranted still another standing O.
And unlike atother events this year, he played opportunistically. After cruising, sometimessloppily, through his first five matches without having to face a top 20opponent, Federer performed brilliantly against the third-seeded Djokovic, aself-enamored Serb who memorably dissed Federer as "vulnerable" earlierthis summer. And Federer sustained that level in the final against theversatile, surging Murray, the Nadal-slayer, to win his 34th straight match atFlushing Meadow. "I'm back in the race," Federer says, "and thingsaren't as bad as everybody's saying."
IF THE org chartin the men's game suddenly isn't clear anymore, the hierarchy in the women'sgame may finally be coming into focus. Like an awkward, moody teenager, the WTATour has had a rough transition year. One top player, Belgium's Justine Henin,abruptly retired in the spring; the most commercially successful star, Russia'sMaria Sharapova, has been sidelined with a chronic shoulder injury (and spentlast week not in New York but in physical rehab in Arizona); the current ItGirl, Serbia's glamorous Ana Ivanovic, took over the top ranking in June andthen misplaced her confidence. The state of flux was such that six women had achance to emerge from the Open with the top ranking.
The outcomeconfirms what many have suspected for a decade now. When the Williams sistersare healthy and committed, they are the best in the business: They are theexecutives, and their colleagues are, at best, middle managers and, at worst,trainees. Two months ago, on the lawns of Wimbledon, Venus Williams carvedthrough the draw without dropping a set, beating Serena Williams in the final.On the asphalt of Flushing Meadows, it was Little Sis who turned in the commandperformance, winning all 14 sets she played to take the title, the ninthsingles major of her career.
This time theinevitable Williams-Williams showdown came unfortunately early. In aquarterfinal match that was astonishingly high in quality and astonishingly lowin tension—who, after all, roots forcefully for one sister to beat theother?—Serena prevailed, 7--6, 7--6, coming from behind in both sets. Afterwardshe confided to her entourage that, having been forced to beat her sister,there was no way she would let anyone else take the trophy. And she didn't,smoking Russia's Dinara Safina in the semis and then outlasting JelenaJankovic, the irrepressible Serb, in Sunday night's final, 6--4, 7--5. SaidWilliams, "I felt that coming into this tournament, I was going towin."
Unanswerable poweris Williams's stock in trade, and in New York she led all players in winnersand aces. Too often, however, her exceptional offense obscures her exceptionaldefense. Racing from corner to corner, her shoes squeaking like subway brakes,she won innumerable points simply by virtue of her hustle and anticipation.
While Williams'spassion for tennis has wavered over the years—which might, paradoxically,explain why she is still going strong a few weeks shy of her 27th birthday—it'scurrently at a high tide. Her friend the rapper Common is among the legion ofsupporters who've encouraged her to take advantage of her prime years, and themessage has gotten through. She's played a full schedule of events this yearand didn't complain about having to come to New York directly from the BeijingOlympics, where she and Venus won their second gold medal in doubles. After shebeat Venus, it was 'round midnight when Serena finally returned to her midtownhotel. By 10 o'clock the next morning she was back on the practice court—averitable tennisy Williams. "I feel so young and energized, like I have anew career," Serena says. "If I don't practice, then it's like my mindgoes nuts. I'm just paying the price, so to speak."
FEDERER, TOO, haspaid the price. For all his talent, he works as hard as anyone else on themen's tour, whether by practicing in Dubai to simulate the hottest conditionsimaginable or by maintaining a strict diet. It's no coincidence that he hasgone through his entire career without a serious injury. It's no coincidencethat, at 27, he can still play seven rounds of a tournament and have plenty ofenergy left.
At 7:04 on Mondaynight, Federer was still going strong. He finished off a comprehensivedestruction of Murray with an unreturnable overhead and fell onto the court,experiencing the unalloyed joy that had eluded him for the last ninemonths.
His march towardhistory was back on track. New York's latest folk hero basked in still anotherstanding ovation, as more than 20,000 fans cheered and sang along to theOrleans lyrics that blasted over the P.A. system: "We're still having fun,and you're still the one."
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