US Open Preview: Unlike Tiger Woods, Roger Federer Still in Younger Generation

Cliff PotterCorrespondent IAugust 22, 2010

CINCINNATI - AUGUST 21:  Roger Federer of Switzerland returns a forehand to Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus during the semifinals on Day 6 of the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters at the Lindner Family Tennis Center on August 21, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

If you felt that Federer - Nadal in the 2010 US Open this year was nirvana, you will be disappointed. Nadal appears a shadow of his former self, including the loss of weight and muscle tone often attributed to someone getting off of steroids. Not that I claim he has ever taken them. Just that his physique for some reason seems dramatically changed. Maybe it was the camera angles in his 2010 Cincinnati Masters match against Baghdatis, which he lost at the end of the third set. But, more likely, it was the loss of his intimidation factor which seems clearly absent these days.

Federer, who some say has lost a half step or so these days, appears primed for another major win. Critics, most prominently the Nadal worshiping John McEnroe, have talked of Federer's demise for years. Yet he is only 29.

As soon as Nadal appeared to have a lock on the French Open, the older players hating Federer's crown as "best ever" worked hard to tarnish his record and legacy. Among others, they claimed he would never win a French Open. For awhile this appeared possible. Then, with his first and only French Open win in 2009, these critics claimed that Nadal was not at his best due to his knees. Federer finally had his French Open win after a contentious year in which he lost the Australian Open to Nadal and openly cried in defeat. Yet the critics remained, claiming that Federer's game was worsening due to age.

Despite the hopes of Federer's critics, men's tennis has not yet moved into a new generation of players. There are more tennis players than ever before ready to take over as the new champion. However, unlike in golf, tennis players start earlier in national competitions and tend to turn professional far earlier than their golfing counterparts.

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Thus, every player who seemingly could be part of the new generation of tennis players is actually an old hand these days.

Cincinnati Masters finalist Mardy Fish, who beat his close friend Andy Roddick to reach the Finals, has played for ten years as a professional. And he is the oldest of the current crop of potential titlists at 28.

Roddick is not a part of the new generation any more. After all, he has been on the pro tour for almost eleven years. And Baghdatis, who also seems quite old these days, is only 25 but has already played for seven years as a pro. So he is also not a part of a new generation of tennis players.

Nadal himself has only just turned 24. He has been a pro since he was 15, making him a very early entry and certainly not the next generation in tennis. 

So what happened to this "next generation" of younger players, and who will they be? Why is golf different? And where does all this lead for tennis in the future?

In both sports, 25 or 26 counts as still young. And these days, if bad health does not intervene, pros in both sports can be at their prime until they are around the mid-30's.

When we consider the ages of the current stars, we can see the differences between the sports.

Tiger Woods, no matter what we say about the mental distractions and knee injury, will be 35 in a few months. Phil Mickelson is already 40.

Thirty-five, much less 40, is already on the downhill side in golf. Sure, golf tournaments are still won by players in their 40s. And Woods might have had this in him absent the scandals and major injury that have racked his career. 

But Woods is already old by the standards of either sport. And a long line of replacements are waiting to take over his titles. Indeed, there is unlikely to be much domination by any one competitor for quite some time. Woods benefited from the huge improvements in golf technologies which allowed far greater accuracy and distance if one was in great shape. His wins are in part a manifestation of that improvement, and the distance between his game and that of most of his rivals. 

No more. Golf's next generation has caught up. And the 25 year old Martin Kaymer's win showed the way to that new generation who have caught up and probably already passed Tiger Woods.

But despite the "over-the-hill" gang's claims that Federer is through, these statements are inconsistent with his age and the existing group of competitors he is still facing. Unlike Woods, he is still under 30. And unlike Woods the next generation has yet to arrive.

So we have the differences that should be laid out very well at this upcoming US Open. Federer still the player to beat, despite what has been for him a very down year. And Woods on his way out of golf greatness into golf also-ran.

And that is The Real Truth.