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Man, what a terrible year for Roger Federer.
What a fall from grace.
What happened to the best player in men's tennis?
Only one grand-slam title? Only two runner-up finishes in grand slams? And he only reached the semifinals of the other major tournament?
Geez, a career change might be in order (barber, perhaps?). How can a dude who had to travel through 18 time zones (or so) to reach Beijing possible feel good about only winning a gold medal in doubles — doubles!
(Note the severe sarcasm.)
But that's what some of the murmurs were regarding arguably the best men's tennis player of all time. At least that was the case before Federer silenced those voices with a dominating victory over Andy Murray in the U.S. Open championship match Monday evening.
If you need evidence that Federer is the Tiger Woods of tennis — you shouldn't — look no further than his 2008. When he hadn't captured one of the first three majors, the whispers started.
Forget that he was under the dark cloud of mononucleosis for most of the first half of the year. Forget that he went up against the King of Clay, Rafael Nadal, in the French Open final. Nadal's victory, his fourth consecutive French Open title and third straight title-match win over Federer, was no surprise; his straight-sets domination, though, gave people fodder with which to question Federer.
And forget that Federer's loss to Nadal in the Wimbledon finale is considered by many the greatest match of all time. Forget that a point here, a point there, and Federer would have won a record sixth consecutive title in London.
When Federer finally lost his No. 1 ranking after a record 237 consecutive weeks, he was almost forgotten. The focus shifted to the younger players, the guys whose careers were on the upswing rather than the downswing.
There is this great inclination among media members and fans to dismiss tennis players as "over the hill" once they reach a certain age. All that's needed is a little evidence, a "down year." That's what happened to Federer this year.
All I know is this: I watched Federer, 27, throughout the Open, including his beating of Murray, and he looked pretty strong on the court. He covered the baseline well, looking nearly as quick as the 23-year-old Murray. He was brilliant at the net, taking advantage of Murray's tendency to stay well behind the baseline.
Just like 26-year-old Serena Williams, Federer displayed great versatility in winning his 13th grand slam. And that will help him win a few more majors before he retires from the sport. Yes, there's no doubt that Federer — barring an injury or catastrophe — will break Pete Sampras' record of 14 grand-slam titles.
What makes Williams and Federer special is that they're able to make up for their age by bringing an all-around game to the court. While Murray was effective against Nadal because of his defense — he was able to cover the entire baseline — Federer was able to frustrate Murry by hitting solid approach shots and winning several points at the net.
I'm sure the serve-and-volley Sampras would agree that charging the net is a great way to beat youth when you're not quite as spry as you once were. Just think about it. It diminishes the angles that a player can use to whip a ground stroke past you. In Federer's easy 6-2 third set over Murray, the Scot became visibly disgusted when all his passing shots were put away by perfect volleys. It was as if there was nowhere for Murray to hit the ball.
Federer, like Williams, must have benefited from his doubles victory in Beijing. He looked better at the net in New York than I'd ever seen him. Was his one-handed backhand as nasty as a year ago? Nope. Did his serve yield as many aces? I don't have numbers, but I highly doubt it.
It didn't matter. Playing with an emotion that demonstrated just how badly he wanted a 2008 major, Federer played perhaps his easiest match of the tournament. The 7-5 second set was a tough one — punctuated by a missed call that would have given Murray a break — but the 6-2 first and third sets left no doubt who the better player was.
Unfortunately, there was no Federer-Nadal rematch in the finale, because the two have created quite a rivalry. But something tells me 2009 will be a special year for men's tennis. Anyone who expects one player to win more than two majors is kidding themselves. Those day are over — at least for now. Federer's years of winning three grand slams (2004, '06 and '07) are gone. Winning two (like in '05) would be a tall task, too.
But don't chalk this up to a declining Federer. Rather, the competition has caught up to him. That's what happens in sports. There's always an up-and-coming opponent. Federal, Nadal, No. 3 Novak Djokovic, Murray and others will beat each other up throughout 2009.
And Federer is well aware of this. During the trophy presentation, Federer noted that he is very pleased with where men's tennis is. It was a diplomatic thing to say, and also very true. The sport has gotten very competitive, and the man who remains right in the thick of the top slate of players was kissing another trophy Monday evening.
He is now the first player — ever — to win two grand slams five times in a row. No, not a bad accomplishment to be recognized for.
As CBS commentator Dick Enberg said, "Cancel those obituaries."