Day 14: Sampras by 2008!

Sunday, September 10, 2006 /by

2006_09_11_federer As today’s men’s final began, I was still hanging around in the local sports bar after seeing my Philadelphia Eagles terminate the feeble Houston Texans. Walking out, I heard someone yell, “Oh, that’s filthy!” I looked back to see what he might be talking about. The silverware? The men's room? No, he was watching the tennis match. This couldn’t be good for Andy Roddick, I thought. In the polite world of tennis, “filthy” is reserved for the deeds of Roger Federer alone.

I was right. By the time I got back to my apartment, Federer was up 3-0. It seemed to have taken about seven minutes. I sat down and started writing in my notebook with the idea that I would simply catalog all of Federer’s unspeakable acts—I mean shots—over the course of the match. That seemed to be the only thing that would be of relevance. I was wrong: Roddick, just like that other American underdog last year, Andre Agassi, made it a match.

Federer always comes out smoking in the final at Flushing. Two years ago he stuffed a bagel down Lleyton Hewitt’s throat in the first set (and then repeated that particular unspeakable act in the third). He went up 5-0 today by stepping into the court and snapping off his forehand with depth and biting topspin. He returned so well that Roddick actually had to go for more than usual—is that possible?—to win a point with his serve. For his part, the American looked heavy-footed, with nothing behind his shots. Federer won a couple points simply by moving Roddick two steps to his right and then slapping a routine forehand down the line for a winner.

The tides turned drastically in the first game of the second set when Federer played a strangely unfocused service game and was broken. From that point until the end of the third set, Roddick controlled the action. He did it in a curious, and, yes, Connors-esque way (though I think Jimmy is getting a little too much credit for Andy’s surge; the guy was No. 1 in the world a couple years ago, after all). I had written before this match that the approach shots Roddick was hitting against Youzhny in the semis, which were landing at the service line and near the middle of the court, were not going to get it done against Federer. Wrong again. Roddick’s bullheaded tactic, where he played it relatively safe on the approach and ran with reckless abandon at the net—not to the net, at the net; Roddick almost launches himself into the thing—wore Federer down and forced him to start thinking. And missing.

I’ve often thought that Federer’s opponents try to make their shots too good and get out of their normal games in the process. It’s what happened to Agassi last year. Roddick solved that problem by not aiming too close to the lines, but at the same time not giving Federer any angles to work with. While Roddick won the second set and threatened in the third by coming to the net, he knocked off virtually no memorable volleys during that run—his hulking presence up there was enough. It shows how mentally debilitating it is to have to pass someone over and over, even if you know they’re not the world’s greatest volleyer. Even Federer felt the heat.

But he also didn’t do himself any favors. Federer has won his last four major finals in four sets, and in each he has gotten tight for one extended period. In the third set today, he was as tentative as I’ve seen him. Federer chipped his backhand returns to the service line, letting Roddick have command of the rallies, and his short, slice crosscourt backhand was floating on him. The match peaked at 2-2 and 3-2 in the third, when each player had to fight off multiple break points. Roddick was energized and starting to look like the guy who had leveled Lleyton Hewitt in the quarters. Like last year, the match, for a fleeting second, was up for grabs.

Federer reasserted himself in his usual way. With Roddick serving at 5-6, 15-40, he stabbed at a huge serve and managed to bring it down into the court and behind the service line. Roddick, going to the well once too often, came in on a forehand. Federer chipped a delicate slice backhand pass for the set. He relaxed in the fourth and repeated his runaway from Agassi in last year’s final. I wrote then that Federer looked like the tennis equivalent of Michael Johnson. The Olympian sprinter, who ran while standing almost straight up, always looked he was coasting around the turn in the 200 meters. But everyone else was somehow getting left in the dust. When you looked up, the guy had broken another world record. At the end of the third set, Dick Enberg noted that Federer had 51 winners. They very well may have been the quietest 51 winners in tennis history.

Remind you of someone? That’s right, Pete Sampras was the master of winning matches with just a couple of key returns or maybe a mishit passing shot off the frame. Like Sampras, Federer can do this because of his efficiency at holding serve. He knows that simply taking care of your serve is half the sport, and it will put you in position to eke out a lot of matches.

Federer, though, may actually be starting to surpass Sampras in the comparison department. With this win he completed a unique triple, becoming the first man ever to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open back to back three years in a row. It matches perhaps the sport’s greatest accomplishment (and a truly unbreakable record), Bjorn Borg’s three consecutive back-to-back wins at the French Open and Wimbledon. More amazing still, Federer is now just five majors behind the biggest men’s record of them all, Sampras’ 14 Slams. At his current 2.5 majors-per-year pace, Federer would tie the record in 2008, and with some luck even break it. When Sampras won his final Slam in 2002, did anyone in their right mind think his record would be history by the end of the decade? Not Roger Federer, most likely—at that point, he'd never even made it past the quarterfinals at a major!

One audience question: If you were Andy Roddick, would you be just a little bit annoyed that Tiger Woods was sitting with Mirka and cheering Federer? I know Woods and Fed are fellow international icons—and fellow star clients of Nike and IMG—but you're his fellow American. Is this the U.S. Open, or the Nike/IMG Pro-Am? Oh well, Andy's still got Jimmy Connors, who seemed to be in good spirits at the end, and that girl, what's her name, tall, really tall, good player, too. I doubt he's complaining.

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