Sunday, September 9, 2007

Roger Federer Is Way Beyond Tennis Bell Curve

Remember the kid in class with the Coke-bottle glasses? He or she would blow the grading curve for everyone by getting all the answers right. Smarty Pants would sit there wearing a job-well-done smirk while the graded papers were being returned.

Meantime, there you were, wondering how the kid did it. After all, you'd say to yourself, you had studied for the test, too. You put in the time and sweat. You had prepared. And yet, in the end, your feedback came with a side order of red ink.

You didn't hate the brilliant one. Actually, there was admiration for the kid's ability to deliver consistent excellence. Maybe, if just once, you could study alongside the brain then perhaps your grades would improve, too. Does brilliance or greatness rub off?

Having spent the past two weeks at the U.S. Open, eating, drinking and dreaming forehand winners and top-spin lobs, watching and listening to the best tennis has to offer, it occurred to me: Roger Federer is the kid with the Coke-bottle glasses.

Consider what Andy Roddick said in 2005 after losing, again, to Federer, this time in the championship round at Wimbledon.

``I've told him before, `I'd love to hate you but you're really nice.'''

Federer aces, pardon the pun, every test, every pop quiz, every homework assignment. There isn't anything he can't answer.

He's the teacher's pet.``I didn't make mistakes,'' was the self-assessment Roddick offered after facing Federer in Wednesday night's quarterfinal.

Not Good Enough And yet, Roddick's best wasn't good enough. Not even close.

The history books will read: 7-6, 7-6 and 6-2. Federer wins. Again.


Against anyone else, a straight-set defeat on the sport's biggest stage, in front of a fervent fan base, might've sent Roddick reeling and ranting. You might've even gotten the kind of sore-loser sass Serena Williams displayed earlier this week. Not this time, though. Not when the opponent is Federer.

``I'm not walking with my head down,'' Roddick said afterward. ``He's great.''

Roddick struck just the right balance between respect for an opponent and outright reverence for the man who stands three Grand Slams shy of Pete Sampras's career record of 14.

After all, Roddick does intend to try, try again.

You Gotta Believe

Here's the thing: If you don't believe that you can beat Federer, which many players don't, then it will never happen. To borrow from Yogi Berra, 90 percent of this game is mental. The other half is physical, right?

You had to be in the room when Nikolay Davydenko, Federer's opponent in tomorrow's semifinal, was asked about the world's top-ranked player.

Davydenko is no slouch. He's the fourth seed. And yet he's got absolutely zero chance of upsetting Federer. That isn't my amateur analysis of the match, either. It's his. Yes, really.

``I feel like I'm top 10 player,'' the Russian said in broken English. ``But I'm not, you know, feeling I'm reach level to be No. 1, you know, to beat Federer.''

Few in the world of sports have enjoyed the dominance exhibited by Federer. There's, let's see, good friend and fellow Nike endorser Tiger Woods, whose work ethic is well documented.

`Never Underestimate'

It's the same for Federer, who prior to the U.S. Open called upon a relative unknown named Jesse Levine to fly to Dubai and help him prepare for the final Grand Slam tournament of the season.

The idea was so far-fetched that Levine, upon receiving the telephone call from one of Federer's agents, thought it was a friend playing a prank. Only it wasn't a joke.

It was the world's top-ranked player recognizing that he hadn't faced a left-handed player -- other than Rafael Nadal -- in more than a year. So he called on a college southpaw for assistance. Wouldn't you know it: Federer faced left-hander Feliciano Lopez in the fourth round, dropping the first set before rebounding to take three straight.

``I never underestimate,'' Federer said earlier this week.

Let those words serve as a reminder. The kid with Coke-bottle glasses is still studying, still learning, still getting better.

And, in Federer's case, he leaves the court wearing his trademark black outfit and that now familiar job-well-done smirk.

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