Federer: First Among Equals

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Federer: First Among Equals

The years 2004-2007 will be remembered in years to come as The Reign of Fed. In each of those years, Roger Federer won at least two, but usually three majors and was an uncontested No. 1 in the world.

His domination, plus his quiet personality and seeming effortless style have led many to compare him to the time of Pete Sampras, whose most dominant years were 1993-1995, and then again in 1997.

There’s just one problem with comparing the results of the two players, however. Every single one of the Fed’s years during The Reign was better than any year Sampras’ produced.

Take 2007, for instance: By the middle of that year, after Fed had been upset early at the Italian Open by Filipo Volandri, the buzz was that Fed was in a “slump,” seeing as how he’d also lost at the Master’s Series events of Miami and Indian Wells.

Like Sampras at the same point in 1997, Federer had won the Australian Open, but not won any all of the year’s Master Series events. Sampras had won two second tier events on faster surfaces and Federer one, but unlike Sampras, Fed had reached the finals of a clay-court Master’s Series event in Monte Carlo. 

Both would win Wimbledon, an assorted pair of Master’s titles and the year-end championships. A key difference is that, unlike Sampras, Federer reached the finals of Roland Garros and won the U.S. Open. He won three majors to Sampras’ two, and yet ’97 is considered one of the Pistol’s best seasons, whereas ’07 was a slightly off year for the Fed.

Sampras, for all his greatness, never created a standard that high. Sampras never won three majors in a season. Even in 2005, when Federer “only” won two, he still put up a win-loss record of 81-4, which was the best winning percentage of anyone since John McEnroe in 1984.

At the time, calling Fed the best player in the world didn’t seem to be enough: It was simply ludicrous to believe that there was anyone better than him. Only on clay, and only against Rafael Nadal was it reasonable to expect Federer to lose, and even then the polls at Tennis.com put them at about even.

A couple of things changed in 2008. Mainly, he was beaten by Novak Djokovic in Australia and Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon. One can hardly blame him for falling to a rapidly rising star like Djokovic, especially after an illness as severe as mono, or for losing an epic 9-7 final against Nadal, who finished the year No. 1.

However, those results seemed to put Fed in freefall, hitting many of the rungs he scaled over earlier in his career. After Miami, Andy Roddick could say that nobody, nobody beats him 16 out of 17 times.

After Indian Wells, Mardy Fish got some revenge for all the “Federer reels in Fish” headlines published at Yahoo Sports in the last five years. At the Olympics, James Blake improved his batting average against Fed from .000 to .111.

However, the fact remains that Roger Federer remains the toughest player to win three sets against. It took mono and a hot Djokovic to beat him in Australia. It took a blisteringly hot Nadal to beat him at Roland Garros, and a 9-7 fifth set at Wimbledon. Then, having won no hard court titles leading up to the U.S. Open, Federer captured his fifth in a row, plowing through Djokovic and Andy Murray in the last two rounds.

This bodes very well for his plans, as he now prioritizes wresting the Grand Slam record away from Sampras. His fall season defeats at the hands of Gilles Simon and Murray (twice) indicate that it is no longer ludicrous to expect him to lose sometimes, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still be the best in the world. The Reign of Fed is likely over, but we’ve now entered a new phase: Roger Federer is now first among equals.

Here’s how I see 2009 breaking down:

 

Australian Open

This is the hardest slam to predict. Sure, Federer’s won here three times, Andre Agassi four and Sampras twice, but this is the slam that that gave us the only major titles of Petr Korda and Thomas Johansson’s careers, plus the only finals for Thomas Enqvist, Marcos Baghdatis and Fernando Gonzalez. It usually favors one player with a lot of momentum going in and one player who happens to get hot at the time. As Murray has been peaking since the fall, and because of his 4-2 head-to-head record against Federer, I look for him to capture his first major here.

 

Roland Garros

Many people are saying that Rafael Nadal’s time is fleeting, that his knee can’t hold out, that he hasn’t won a title in months, blah blah blah. They said the same thing last year and will say the same in 2010. Clay is not as hard on Rafa’s fragile knees as other surfaces, and every year about that time the surface has a transformative effect on his game. Look for him to five-peat.

 

Wimbledon

Here it gets very interesting. How can this tournament live up to the precedent set last year? It probably can’t, but should still make for interesting viewing. Here, Federer finds renewal similar to what Nadal experiences on clay, and will be eager to reclaim the title he values above all others. The Spaniard will stand in his way again, but look for Federer to reclaim it in their fourth-consecutive final, and their third to go five sets.

 

U.S. Open

I didn’t expect Federer to win here last year as he was coming off hard-court losses to Blake, Simon and Ivo Karlovic in the summer circuit. Ne’er will I make that mistake again. Federer clearly gets a rush playing in New York, and deserves favorite status at this event even if he comes into it with no titles. Since he’ll be coming off his sixth Wimbledon title, look for Federer to capture his sixth straight Open crown.

Sampras will make good on his promise to attend the event to watch Federer break his record. Federer will reclaim No. 1, and finish the year as such, though likely for the last time.

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