How else can you explain his failure to resist victimization by guys who normally would be pleased to get a hello from him? Was he using a ping-pong paddle? Or playing left-handed, trying to borrow Rafa’s magic?
The 2008 record he brings to his tennis tournament, the US Open, looks like a disaster area, considering who he is: 14 tournaments, 12 defeats. Two insignificant titles. Merely one year ago, about to pluck his fourth successive U.S. Open, Roger already had Australia, Wimbledon and four other titles in his pocket, and looked as though he’d be No. 1 until George W. Bush discovered global warming.
But times got overly warm for Roger. Novak Djokovic bagged his Australian, Rafa Nadal annexed the French, Wimbledon and his No. 1 ranking, and abruptly the Lord of the Swings became a bottom feeder.
Not necessarily a bad thing. Being seeded No. 2 in the draw, in the basement, is just as favorable as No. 1, Nadal, way up high in the attic. They’re just as far apart.
“I have to start from the bottom, but that’s OK,” Roger was saying after his routine opener, Tuesday, 6-3, 6-0, 6-3, over a sacrificial lamb from Argentina, Maximo Gonzalez, No 118. “One or two is pretty much the same. The change I feel is the fans here are really supporting me, and telling me I’m still No. 1, and still the best.”
In fact the loudest, longest cheers were directed at Federer Monday evening when former champs were introduced, a group including such as King, Laver, Evert, McEnroe, Navratilova, Newcombe, Vilas, Becker, Seles, Sabatini.
“I appreciated it,” Roger says, “especially not being an American. It took me a while, but I guess I’m close to their hearts now.”
He is. But he’ll need that backing desperately unless he’s re-tooled since the Olympic loss to one of his pigeons, James Blake. He got the Olympic gold he sought as a lone jewel of the campaign, but needed help from doubles partner Stanislaus Wawrinka.
“I would think it does. Five years almost, I was expected to win every tournament I entered. Except maybe towards the end a little bit on clay. Raffa showed he was very good on clay. Other than that I was always expected to win. So now it changes a bit. Raffa will now feel what I had to feel for a very long time. It will be interesting to see how he handles it.
“Maybe,” he smiled, “this is nice [going into a major] maybe not having No. 1 beside me.”
Maybe, just maybe, this could loosen Roger up, make him a new guy minus the universe in his backpack.
The decline began in Australia when he wasn’t fully recovered from mononucleosis, and was a step slow. He’s never caught up. But despite the shoddy look of his season, consider that Roger was two points from winning that lalapalooza Wimbledon final as Nadal served at 4-5 in the fifth set. And if Roger had held serve in the 15th game – they were poking about in the dark by then – the match would have been suspended until the following day.
Who might have won then?
Even so, they were closer than two lovers. Nadal got the cup and soon No. 1, but I don’t think he’s that far ahead (except in the dirt) of his great antagonist. (And don’t neglect Novak Djokovic, who has beaten both of them on pavement.)
I’m surprised that so many feel Federer stepped off a cliff at Wimbledon and is vanishing. At 27 he’s got a lot of mileage in the tank. But tennis is a cruel sport. You’re No. 1 or nobody. Take golf (if you’re old enough). Somebody finishes third, maybe leads for a day, and he’s a hero. Not tennis. You have to win the biggies.
This Open really began yesterday when a French kid smart enough to get an American college degree in mathematics curbed the Serb holding No. 1, Ana Ivanovic. I don’t know who won the coin flip, but Julie Coin, an anonymous Clemson graduate, flipped Ivanovic, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4. Julie could be a lesson to American tennis parents. It might be wiser to point promising kids at a college degree rather than the frequent dunking of them prematurely into professionalism.
Although I don’t think Roger will pull himself together sufficiently to keep his title, we haven’t seen the last of his elegance.
Anybody who relishes excellence hopes he leaps from the current rut to resume his role as Lord of the Swings.
August 28 2008 01:13 pm | US Open