I have a confession to make: I cannot call myself a Roger Federer fan. I have talked in great technical detail about what makes him great, I have left admiring comments on many YouTube videos exhibiting his greatness, and I think he got robbed of the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year every year from 2004-2007.
But I don’t root for him nearly often enough to be considered his fan. Part of the problem is that I’m hard to win over: I mean, it took Pete Sampras six years.
In 1990, at the first U.S. Open I ever watched on TV, Sampras obliterated my then-favorite, Andre Agassi. Like Federer, Sampras would remain someone I “appreciated” rather than rooted for until 1996 – during the famous match in which he contained Alex Corretja despite his inability to control the contents of his stomach.
From then on, he was so much more than a champion athlete; he was a role model. I knew then that if this phenomenally talented, enormously gifted athlete was willing work that hard to succeed, then I should be willing to do the same.
Even as his dominance faded, his role-modeling continued for years to come. Coming out of nowhere to win the 1999 Wimbledon final. Breaking the Grand Slam title record in 2000 on an injured leg. Breaking out of a two-year title drought to win his fifth U.S. Open title before retiring.
Federer has yet to make such an impression on me. I know, I know – he’s a better all-around player than Sampras, while his baseline-oriented style and sheer flair makes him easier to watch. It’s also not Federer’s fault that he hasn’t been challenged to the degree that Sampras was.
It should be, in fact, a tribute to his greatness that he’s won a Grand Slam title (Australian Open 2007) without dropping a set. That he won Wimbledon in 2006 by only dropping one. That, in all of his 13 major title victories, he’s only been pushed to five sets by Agassi (2004 U.S. Open), Tommy Haas (2006 Australian Open) Rafael Nadal (2007 Wimbledon) and by Igor Andreev in this year’s U.S. Open.
So why can’t he replace Sampras in my heart, as he has in my mind? It’s probably because most of his major title victories seem uneventful. Unlike Sampras, who seemed to be overcoming an injury, illness or a phenomenally-inspired opponent every time he won a slam, Federer’s titles appear preordained. The above five-set wins could hardly match the drama of the Sampras-Corretja battle. Even Federer’s much touted win over Nadal in last year’s Wimbledon was not compelling near its end: Nadal’s knee failed him and Federer ran away with the fifth set.
It was when he smacked that final overhead winner past Andy Roddick in the 2006 U.S. Open before collapsing in exultation that I began to wonder what he was so enthusiastic about.
“Was it really a profoundly different feeling to win a third consecutive Open, as opposed to a second?” I asked myself. “Was he actually surprised to have beaten Roddick for the 11th time in 12 meetings? In a year in which he’s on pace to win 11 titles, more than 90 matches and lose to only two different players? In a tournament in which seven opponents have taken a combined two sets from him?”
That’s why it’s a major event every time Federer falters in a Grand Slam event. It takes a (perceived) shortcoming from the Fed to give every other tennis player on earth hope. It opens the door for surprise, and means their may very well be some drama on the final day.
Don’t tell that to any Federer fan, though. Woe unto thee who would dare suggest that Nadal, Roddick or Novak Djokovic deserves to play on the same court as the Great One, or that Sampras could have ever approached his awesomeness. A legion of Federites patrol the Internet, prepared to leave message board comments disparaging any apostates and the inferior players they promote. On the day after a Grand Slam in which their avatar has fallen, their faces hang forlorn, and they can’t wait to express their disappointment.
“I feel so bad for Roger,” they can be overheard saying. One wonders if they feel bad every time a consumer declines to buy a Microsoft product, or when a baby is born some place other than China.
Part of the reason I cheered when Nadal knocked Federer off his Wimbledon throne this year is that Federer might then be forced into more warrior moments. Maybe he’d start winning majors at unexpected times, forced to dig deep against opponents he might otherwise crush. Then, perhaps, I could do more than appreciate him.
Federer took a step toward granting that hope sooner than I expected. At this year’s U.S. Open we saw the great one pushed to his limit by Andreev, who has long been considered dangerous, but hardly a title contender. This time, we saw Federer do what Sampras did time and time again: shake the rust off against a less-regarded opponent before raising his level to down the top contenders.
Given the disappointments of his 2008 season, it’s no wonder Federer collapsed in joy after Murray’s final shot landed out. At this Open, for the first time in many years, some of us were actually not expecting him to win. We’ve learned our lesson, and won’t discount him again before he loses match point. Federer has proven his warrior status, and the Grand Slam title record is inevitable.
In the process, he just might make a fan of me.
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