Monday, June 08, 2009

The People's Champion (and a Roland Garros Postscript)

After so many years of placing Roger Federer upon a high pedestal, the past year has been particularly disconcerting. Federer went from being called "The Greatest of All Time" to being considered possibly the SECOND-best of his GENERATION in the blink of an eye.

Over a twelve-month span, wrapped around his fifth straight U.S. Open title run, we saw Federer beat down in Paris, shellshocked in London, and brought to dejected tears in Melbourne. In March, the weight of the combined experiences seemed to come to a head in Miami when he furiously crushed his racket on the court and talked about being "glad the hard court season was over." Mind you, this is the same man who used to rule the hard courts, setting the all-time mark with fifty-six straight surface victories in 2005-06.

Apparently, though, there was a method to the former King Roger's madness. As the weekend ended in Paris yesterday, Federer was brought to tears once again. But this people time didn't feel the need to turn away from the sight of a "broken man." Instead, they cried tears of joy with him.

Three weeks ago, when Federer knocked off Rafael Nadal on the clay in Madrid, it was a much-needed confidence boost for a man who'd been the epitome of self-assurance not that long ago. But, still, it was hard to tell how much the victory would mean in Paris. After all, Federer had ended Nadal's record 81-match clay streak in Hamburg in '07, but it didn't stop the Spaniard from winning in Paris again and then extending his consecutive victory mark over Federer at Roland Garros to four in the final a year ago in a fashion so discouraging to Federer.

But then Nadal lost.

The four-time champion's upset at the hands of Sweden's Robin Soderling last weekend was one of those moments that opened the door wide for history to pass through. At its core, it elminated the biggest obsacle in the path of the rebirth of the Federer legend. But it didn't assure it.

For half of this Roland Garros, Federer had to withstand possibly the heaviest burden of his career, as likely his best chance to complete the career Grand Slam and tie Pete Sampras' all-time slam title mark of fourteen was there, plain as day, for all to see. Especially Federer himself. If he failed to do it this time, the sense of loss and disappointment might have been crushing. He nearly lost twice, having to come back from two sets down against Tommy Haas on Monday, then from a two-sets-to-one deficit against Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals on Friday. Ultimatley, he survived and lived to stare down history once again.

But that's why Federer is Federer, or maybe I should say, that's why Federer is STILL Federer, recent evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Sunday's final was one of those rare instances where nearly everyone on hand at Court Chatrier (or watching from afar), save for a few stalwart Swedes in the corner of Rafa-conquering finalist Soderling, yearned to see the same result. They wanted to see Federer win, as even Nadal had expressed a week ago a wish to see his hard-working and deserving rival raise the Coupe des Mousquetaires for which his quest has been such an arduous and previously fruitless endeavor, but everyone was holding his or her breath. It was as if millions around the world had planned for a big celebratory parade, but a slight threat of rain planted a seed of doubt that grew into a worry that everything would be ruined.

But there was on reason to despair, for the revelry went off without a hitch.

Of course, it wasn't going to be a TOTALLY easy day for Federer, even if his first-time slam finalist opponent didn't come lose to replicating his play against Nadal. The elements wind, rain and cold were conspiring to make calamitous this day of expected bliss, toying with the idea of becoming factors if the match lasted long into the day.

But it didn't.

Resembling the Federer who, when he was at the top of his game, could create a quick victim of an opponent in a slam final (ask Lleyton Hewitt), the Swiss Mister was more than ready for his re-introduction to immortality.

Federer broke Soderling to take a 1-0 lead in the 1st set, then again to go up 3-0. He won the set 6-1 and it seemed like we could just fast forward to the post-match ceremony. During the fourth game of the 2nd set, though, some yahoo rushed out of the stands, waving a flag and trying to put his hat on Federer's head before leaping the net in a mad scramble away from security forces. (Seriously, even the flying wedge-like tackle from one guard in no way made up for such a lapse sixteen years after Monica Seles' life and career, as well as WTA history, were altered forever in Hamburg.)

Federer was visibly rattled. The crowd was uneasy. How much the closeness of the proceeding set had to do with the incident, or whether it was more a case of Soderling slowly getting his footing, is hard to tell. But the moment had no long-term deleterious effect on the match, as it was still all-Federer. He handily won the 2nd set tie-break. After badly overhitting a volley that briefly gave Soderling a break point at 5-4 in the 3rd set, Federer promptly served out the game to win 6-1/7-6/6-4.

It was never in doubt.

AP / Christophe Ena

Thus, Soderling became the eleventh different victim in Federer's fourteen career slam wins. Meanwhile, Federer (the "anti-Ivan Lendl," the former Czech #1 that a Sports Illustrated cover once dubbed "The Champion Nobody Cares About") re-entered the discussion he used to dominate concerning who is the greatest player of all time.

Which brings to mind the question of what it is that defines athletic greatest. Winning, of course. But also consistency, endurance and gameday dependability that no one will ever question a player's desire to win.

Remind you of anyone?

As there is now talk about Nadal's knee possibly preventing him from attempting to defend his Wimbledon title, it's even more important to note that Federer has played in thirty-eight straight slams, reached nineteen career slam finals and twenty consecutive slam semifinals. He's not only tied with Sampras as the winningest slam champion ever, but he's also just the sixth man to win all four slam crowns and the second (with Andre Agassi) to do so on three different surfaces. Greatness pretty much describes Federer to a "service T."

Against other Open era contenders, Federer's versatility pushes him past Sampras, and his depth and dimension of accomplishments spirit him past the likes of Agassi, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. There'll always be an argument from those who saw Rod Laver play just who is THE best player ever, but this win means that Federer is assured of being no worse than #2 in the mythical all-time rankings.

But Federer's not just one more slam victory from unquestionably being "history's numerical champion," he's become the "people's champion," too.

He's emerged as the most human of all the great men's champions in recent years. Oddly, unlike players such as Agassi and McEnroe who became "beloved" as they shared so much of themselves (good and bad) through the years, Federer has always played the part of the reserved gentleman of the game. Oddly, Federer was once a player about whom it was so easy to make only half-joking comments about his omniscience and God-like traits (an original Federerism: "Bono asks Roger Federer for his advice on how to cure all the world's ills "). Also, the irony that THIS Federer is the same person who once managed to so routinely flash such an all-knowing, imperiousness before he was surpassed by Nadal is quite a feat. Or maybe not. After all, Federer's old persona, in spite of it all, never projected arrogance (though it would have been seen as only that if sported by almost anyone else) because he pulled it off with such class and panache that he came off as supremely polite even while casually agreeing that yes, he just might be the best tennis player who's ever lived.

What is it that they say? It's not being cocky if it's true? For a while, it was. And it might be again.

As he's recently seemed more vulnerable than any other superiorly gifted athlete in any sport, he's gone from the exalted, untouchable FEDERER to the likable man being brought down to the level of a mere mortal as his humanity was uncovered by way of his defeats at the hands of Nadal.

After seeing his aura of invincibility crack, becoming confused and sometimes seemingly helpless to do anything about it, Federer's triumphant trek back to the top on the surface and at the tournament that had been his most vexing, has not only added yet another level to his legend but also allowed tennis fans to embrace him as an individual as much as tennis luminaries always have as a player, before he edges into the late stages of a career when the intervals between big wins begin to get longer and longer.

The only thing missing from the equation on Sunday was Nadal himself. But, then again, none of what happened to Federer in Paris this year would have been possible, or meant as much, were it not for Nadal denying him of it for so many years.

In the end, what we recaptured at this Roland Garros was our preferred image of Federer. Fully recovered from his bout with mono that might have played a larger role in this drama than we'll ever know, newly married with a baby on the way, and now the reigning RG champion. On this day, Federer has it all. THAT'S the Federer who fits so neatly into our collective memory banks, and now it's the Federer who'll forever remian there.

I guess we were a bit premature to even consider writing off or revising the man's place in tennis history, huh?

Of course, the signs of Federer's place in the sports landscape were everywhere on Sunday. His partner-in-the-crime-of-greatness, Tiger Woods, took his friend's cue and won a title this weekend, too. (All that we needed was Derek Jeter or that soccer guy and we'd have a Gillette commercial.)

Then, during the post-match ceremony in which Federer effortlessly drifted between French and English during his acceptance speech and tears fell down his cheeks as the Swiss national anthem played while the newly-crowned Roland Garros champion stood shoulder-to-shoulder with presenter and fellow career Slam achiever Agassi, the rain came down harder than it had all day long.

Could it have been the tears of the tennis Gods? Maybe. After all, they only weep for their own.

Is it possible that the women's game is leaving Paris even more confused than it was before Roland Garros, or even in the immediate aftermath of Justine Henin's retirement more than a year ago?

Clearly, the "boss" position that Henin talked about last week is still waiting to be filled. And, for now at least, that's not such a bad thing. Contrary to the line of reasoning that attempts to establish that the lack of a true #1 somehow means the tour is something "less" than it would be if one or two women were dominating, I don't buy it. As even Henin noted last week, so many questions about who's going to win IS exciting. But while I don't think a "boss" is necessarily needed, it is a bit troubling that every new player who's ascended to the ranking (not counting Serena or Sharapova, who'd been there before and dropped largely or totally because of injuries) has seemed to be unable to, either a) handle the pressure of being #1, or b) back up the ranking at the next slam she plays. It sort of plays into the hands of the critics who like to say that there's no "there" there... even though I suspect at the heart of all the discussion is the unwillingness of said critics to put in the time to actually recognize more than a few of the WTA's top players. When it's just Federer vs. Nadal, or Nadal vs. Federer, things are so much easier to keep track of.

I think, for the moment, this is a fine situation. If the future reigns of #1 players are still known for an inability to win "the big one" two or three years from now, then we may have a problem. I don't think that'll be the case, though. Someone will fill the void. Maybe it'll someone who's struggled to do so recently (Safina), shown an ability to in the past (Williams or Sharapova) or has flashed the talent, if not the temperment at this point (Azarenka), to be the game's top player. No one might be able to get the same sort of stranglehold on the sport that Henin had, but such a development would only serve to provide hope for players that they might achieve great things in the sport (over on the men's side, there hasn't been a lot of that the last four+ years with two players winning 16 of the last 17, and 17 of 19, slams).

A sport dominated by one or two great players can be either thrilling (Federer/Nadal, Navartilova/Evert) or impressive-though-a-bit-monotonous (Graf, after a pre-stabbing Seles was removed from the equation). It's all about the personalities of the players involved. And between the Sisters, Russians, Serbs and the like, the women's tour has more than enough personality to make things fun no matter how the major titles are doled out the next couple of years.

For now, enjoy this little moment in WTA history for what it is -- aside from maybe at Wimbledon, we're treated to a true scramble for each and every major title out there that provides ALL players with the chance to stake out their claim for a seat at the sport's big table. If they can claim it, as Kuznetsova did in Paris, the new pressure will be in the attempt to justify it.

There's inherent drama in that.

Of course, it'd also be great if a player such as Sharapova could assume the #1 ranking and stay there, building the foundation on which a legend could survive forever. Henin, for one, believes the Supernova has it in her to become the "boss." Of course, she also thought Safina was ready to win Roland Garros.

No one's perfect... not even La Petit Taureau in Paris.

TOP PLAYER: Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS we'll have to include HER in the mix, too, when it comes to the "power elite" in the post-Henin women's game.
RISER: Samantha Stosur/AUS
...raise your hand if you can't wait to see what she does at SW19.
...Vania on the Clay, with Marcelo Melo by her side, almost walked away with a slam title.
VETERANS: Anabel Medina-Garrigues & Virginia Ruano-Pascual, ESP/ESP & Liezel Huber/USA
...AMG & VRP's title was the only successful women's title defense at this year's RG. Bob Bryan repeated as Mixed champion, but with Huber as his partner rather than Victoria Azarenka. It was a good turn for Huber, who once again failed to claim the Doubles title in Paris with Cara Black.
FRESH FACE/JUNIOR Kristina Mladenovic/FRA
...she became the third Pastry this decade to win her nation's slam Girls title.
DOWN: Serena Williams/USA & Dinara Safina/RUS
...maybe Serena should just refrain from allowing ALL her subconsious thoughts to escape her mouth in those post-match press conferences. It would at least allow her to be viewed as a gracious winner AND loser. As for Dinara, the less said the better. She probably won't erase those Paris memories on the grass, so North America can't be far from her mind.

BEST MATCH: Mixed Final - Huber/B.Bryan d. King/Melo 5-7/7-6 [10-7]
WORST MATCH: SINGLES FINAL - Kuznetsova d. Safina 6-4/6-2
of course, it was STILL a better contest than a handful of the women's finals from this decade. And it was no Graf vs. Zvevera double-bagel, either. All right, all right. Let's face it. It was BAD, and no amount of fragrant flowers can change the fact that Safina actually won fewer games in this year's final than she did in last year's againt Ivanovic.

ITF PLAYER OF THE WEEK (WEEK 22): Maria Elena Camerin/ITA
...getting a head start on the grass season, Camerin won the $50K grass challenger in Nottingham, getting wins over Brits (Broady & Baltacha), Americans (Spears & Brengle) and a Swiss (Stefanie Voegele in the final).

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND GBR (Int'l $220K Grass/Outdoor)
08 Final: K.Bondarenko d. Wickmayer
09 Top Seeds: Zheng/Kanepi

Zheng d. U.Radwanska
Pavlyuchenkova d. Morita
Tanasugarn d. Kudryavtseva
Wickmayer d. Sharapova
Zheng d. Pavlyuchenkova
Wickmayer d. Tanasugarn
Wickmayer d. Zheng

...the grass court season has already officially begun in Edgbaston, and it's hard to tell how things will shake out in this first event. Even the good grasscourters might have an "off" initial experience. It'd be easy to pick Sharapova to win her first grass title since taking this tournament in 2005 (the only grass event she's won since she claimed SW19 in '04), but I won't. Weird results could happen here. I almost went with Pavlyuchenkova, but I'll take Wickmayer to go one better than her RU result last year.

Oh, I should also note here that the "Odds and Ends Between Paris & London" grass court season preview and the Clay Court Awards arrive in the next day or two, as well.

14...Pete Sampras
12...Roy Emerson
11...Bjorn Borg
11...Rod Laver
10...Bill Tilden

Fred Perry (1-1-3-3), 1933-36
Don Budge (1-1-2-2), 1933-38
Roy Emerson (6-2-2-2), 1961-67
Rod Laver (3-2-4-2), 1960-69
Andre Agassi (4-1-1-2), 1992-03
ROGER FEDERER (3-1-5-5), 2003-09

19...ROGER FEDERER (14-5)
8...Rafael Nadal (6-2)
4...Marat Safin (2-2)
4...Lleyton Hewitt (2-2)
4...Andy Roddick (1-3)

2004 def. Marat Safin
2006 def. Marcos Baghdatis
2007 def. Fernando Gonzalez
2009 def. Robin Soderling
2003 def. Mark Philippoussis
2004 def. Andy Roddick
2005 def. Andy Roddick
2006 def. Rafael Nadal
2007 def. Rafael Nadal
2004 def. Lleyton Hewitt
2005 def. Andre Agassi
2006 def. Andy Roddick
2007 def. Novak Djokovic
2008 def. Andy Murray

1996 Amelie Mauresmo/FRA d. Meghann Shaughnessy/USA
1997 Justine Henin/BEL d. Cara Black/ZIM
1998 Nadia Petrova/RUS d. Jelena Dokic/AUS
1999 Lourdes Dominguez-Lino/ESP d. Stephanie Foretz/FRA
2000 Virginie Razzano/FRA d. Maria-Emilia Salerni/ARG
2001 Kai Kanepi/EST d. Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
2002 Angelique Widjaja/INA d. Ashley Harkleroad/USA
2003 Anna-Lena Groenefeld/GER d. Vera Dushevina/RUS
2004 Sesil Karatantcheva/BUL d. Madalina Gojnea/ROU
2005 Agnes Szavay/HUN d. Ioana-Raluca Olaru/ROU
2006 Agnieszka Radwanska/POL d. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS
2007 Alize Cornet/FRA d. Mariana Duque-Marino/COL
2008 Simona Halep/ROU d. Elena Bogdan/ROU
2009 Kristina Mladenovic/FRA d. Daria Gavrilova/RUS

#7 Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS def. #1 Dinara Safina/RUS 6-4/6-2

#2 Roger Federer/SUI def. #23 Robin Soderling/SWE 6-1/7-6/6-4

#3 Medina-Garrigues/Ruano-Pascual (ESP/ESP) def. #12 Azarenka/Vesnina (BLR/RUS) 6-1/6-1

#3 Dlouhy/Paes (CZE/IND) def. Moodie/Norman (RSA/BEL) 3-6/6-3/6-2

#1 Huber/B.Bryan (USA/USA) def.
King/Melo (USA/BRA) 5-7/7-6 [10-7]

#9 Kristina Mladenovic/FRA def. Daria Gavrilova/RUS 6-2/6-2

Daniel Berta/SWE def. #11 Gianni Mina/FRA 6-1/3-6/6-3

#2 E.Bogdan/Lertcheewakarn (ROU/THA) def. #3 Babos/Watson (HUN/GBR) 3-6/6-3 [10-8]

Draganja/Marcan (CRO/CRO) def. #4 Clezar/Huang (BRA/TPE) 6-3/6-2

TOP QUALIFIER: Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Dinara Safina/RUS
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q2: Corinna Dentoni/ITA d. Sesil Karatantcheva/KAZ 4-6/6-3/6-2
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 1st Rd. - Vitalia Diatchenko/RUS d. Mathilde Johansson/FRA 1-6/6-2/10-8 (saved 7 MP)
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): SF - Svetlana Kuznetsova d. Serena Williams 7-6/5-7/7-5
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F): Mixed Doubles Final - #1 Huber/B.Bryan d. King/Melo 5-7/7-6 [10-7]
FIRST SEED OUT: #19 Kaia Kanepi/EST (1st Rd.- Shvedova/KAZ)
UPSET QUEENS: The ex-Russian Kazakhs
LAST QUALIFIERS STANDING: Michelle Larcher de Brito/POR & Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ (both to 3rd Rd.)
IT GIRL: Dominika Cibulkova/SVK
CRASH & BURN: Elena Dementieva/RUS - dominated by Dokic in 2nd, but advances with retirement, then taken out by Stosur in 3rd Rd.
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Victoria Azarenka/BLR - was down 7-5/4-1 vs. Suarez-Navarro in 3rd Rd., won and reached first slam QF
LAST PASTRIES STANDING: Aravane Rezai & Virginie Razzano (both to 4th Rd.)
DOUBLES STAR Virginia Ruano-Pascual/ESP

All for now.


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