September 8, 2008

Chasing the Dream, or The Destiny of Roger Federer

All is right in the world again.

After a relatively quick and admittedly unexciting three sets, Roger Federer claimed his fifth straight U.S. Open championship.

It was a totally foreseeable outcome, but lately tennis fans were left to worry it might not happen. Roger's opponent, Andy Murray, had placed second in the U.S. Open Series of tournaments and had bested #3 Novak Djokovic and #1 Rafael Nadal in the past month. He had just received his highest ranking and was now number four in the world.

Roger, on the other hand, just ended a 237-week run at the top and hadn't won a singles tournament since June.

But the tables reverted tonight.

Unlike the women's final on Sunday, this game wasn't much of a fight, and the former World #1 owned the match basically from the get-go. I've already spent ample time discussing why I didn't want Murray in the final to begin with, and since the match itself wasn't very noteworthy, I won't waste any more space here analyzing the play of today.

Instead I choose to expound on why Roger's win was destined to be.

When 2008 began I was a bit worried. A record long-held by my all-time favorite player was in jeopardy. Six years ago Pete Sampras came to Flushing Meadows seeded as low as he'd been in years -- number seventeen. His storied career was over, the critics said. But Pistol Pete proved everyone wrong, and he left New York with his fourteenth Grand Slam title, two more than any other man in history.

But his record was about to be challenged.

By the start of this year, Roger Federer had earned himself twelve major championships and had set his own slew of records. He was on a roll -- he owned grass and hard courts, had become a serious threat on clay and was ready to defend the three Grand Slam titles he won in both 2007 and 2006.

Roger was going after Pete both in the record books and on the court. In March I had the great privilege of witnessing the two players take each other on at an exhibition match in Madison Square Garden.

Though this was a friendly match, both men poured their souls into the game, and after three hard-fought sets, a handful of gunshot-fast serves from Sampras, and match points on both sides of the net, Roger held the trophy above his head.

I resigned myself to the fact that Pete's reign as the Greatest Ever would end within twelve months.

But then Federer lost in the semis in Melbourne to Djokovic, the Serb who went on to win the tournament. Okay, I thought, if he's gonna beat Pete this year, Roger will really have to bring it in Paris.

Roger's loss in the French final was disappointing, I'm sure -- he definitely has more game on that surface than Pete, whose best showing at Roland Garros was one appearance in the fourth round -- but not entirely unexpected since Rafael Nadal just dominates there. But I was somewhat mollified -- the best Federer could do in '08 would be a tie.

When he fell to Rafa at Wimbledon, though, tennis fans were stunned -- devastated, even. In what many consider the best match of all time, Roger came back from a two-set deficit to force a fifth, but finally went down after sixteen more games and 75 more minutes were played.

And so, I rejoiced, Pete's record would remain in tact for yet one more year.

"Is Roger’s career over?" the pundits wondered. "Will he ever regain his place at the top?"


Sure, it hasn't been Federer's best year. He's only won two tournaments in 2008, one in Portugal before the French and the other in Germany leading up to Wimbledon. He lost tough matches not just to Rafa and Nole, but to Andy Roddick, James Blake and Mardy Fish.

But it didn't take tonight's win in Arthur Ashe Stadium to know that Roger isn't done quite yet. Today he broke his year-long deadlock with Roy Emerson and earned Slam #13, becoming the second winningest player in Grand Slam history.

Unlucky #13?

Roger joked that he didn't want to hold onto that number for very long, and I don't believe that he will.

As much as I adore Pete Sampras and would love for him to be forever known as the best tennis player of all time, I know it's just a matter of time before Federer ties, beats and far surpasses his record.

He's only twenty-seven after all, one year younger than Pete when he won number thirteen at Wimbledon in 2000. Maybe thirteen was unlucky for Sampras -- he couldn't get past it for more than two years -- but I have a feeling Roger might not be able to wait that long. He's still at the top of his game.

And, probably more dangerously, he's hungry. Nothing motivates like starvation, and Roger, after one long sparse year, is nothing if not hungry for more.

So with a heavy heart I concede Pete's spot at the top and applaud the Best Tennis Player of All-Time, Roger Federer. I'm optimistic that he'll wear the crown admirably.

And for everyone else, 'til next time, serve well and play hard!

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