Tennis cowers before Federer

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist
Published July 2, 2005

WIMBLEDON, England – Finally, there is someone who can beat Roger Federer.

Finally, there is someone with enough game, with enough guts, to end this domination. Finally, there is someone with enough confidence, with enough charisma, to keep Federer away from the history books.

His name is Borg.

Just as soon as 1980 rolls around again, all of this Federer foolishness is over.

It was hours after Federer had rolled into his third straight Wimbledon final, stepping over a perfectly harmless Lleyton Hewitt along the way, when the monitors at the tennis club began to show old matches. Voila, there was a young Borg beating a young McEnroe, giving birth to a perfectly logical question: Gee. What would happen if Federer could play the winner?

If not Borg, how about Sampras? How about Laver? How about Becker? How about Connors?

With those guys, you can at least get an interesting discussion as to who might win, which is more than we have had at Wimbledon for the last three years. Federer has drained men’s tennis of all intrigue. He has become a foregone conclusion on grass, and at times, he resembles a sheepherder taking his flock to market more than a competitor facing down legitimate challengers.

Every time Federer tosses a ball into the air, it seems, the history book opens a little wider and his opponents bow a little lower. The rest of the tour lies curled around his feet, hoping for scraps and bad bounces.

Federer won his 35th consecutive match on grass Thursday – only Borg, at 41, has a longer streak in the Open era – and he hardly broke a sweat doing so. Federer was at his best, running down improbable shots, dictating play, demonstrating as much style and grace as anyone. He is the perfect grass-court player. Asking someone to beat him at Wimbledon is like asking someone to whip a Cartwright on the Ponderosa.

You might think that the No. 2 player in the world, particularly a fiery guy such as Hewitt, would raise a bit of a fuss before taking a knee, but it never happened. Against everyone else, Hewitt is the Pit Bull; against Federer, he is Lleyton the Lap Dog.

Now only Andy Roddick, the fastest serve alive, or Thomas Johansson, the dullest man alive, can stop Federer from winning his third straight Wimbledon. Their match was stopped by rain Friday. Like everyone else in Federer’s path, he seems to have accepted his fate.

To win three straight Wimbledons would be the stuff of legend. The only men who have done that in the Open era are Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras. Feel free to interpret that as a compliment to Federer or an indictment of the rest of the field. Not since the early days of Tiger Woods has a tour cowered at the sight of its best player.

It is a lot to ask of both Roddick and Johansson to stop the avalanche. Poor Roddick. If Federer had taken up golf as a child, then Roddick might be thought of as quite the ace by now. And if John Lennon had stuck to painting, then Mick Jagger would be remembered as the best rock singer in the history of England.

As far as Johansson, his best chance seems to be at inducing narcolepsy in his opponents. Even Johansson seems bored by Johansson – he admits his hobby is sleeping, and after watching him, there is a temptation to join in. Exciting? Johansson is the kind of guy who sends Corn Flakes back to the kitchen because they are too spicy. He’s the reason Ben and Jerry’s makes vanilla, okay?

That is okay, though, because in a way, Federer will only partly be playing against Roddick and Johansson. In another way, he’ll also be playing Borg and Sampras and the rest.

This is what happens when a player pushes around his opponents so easily and rises so far above his sport. One day, you’re the head Hun, and the next, everyone is comparing you to Attila. Federer is only 23, but already, the measuring tape is out and the talk is about legends.

“He is closing in on being one of the best, if not the best, of all time,” said John McEnroe, now an analyst for NBC. “I’d be surprised if he didn’t win 10 majors.”

It isn’t just the former players who believe that. Roddick was asked about Federer the other day, and he referred to Federer as “probably the most talented person ever to carry a racket around.”

Hewitt seems to believe it, too. After being beaten in three sets by Federer, Hewitt actually seemed impressed with the way he played. It was almost as if he expected you to rush up to him and congratulate him for taking a best-of-five match to three sets.

“I feel like I’m the second-best player going around right at the moment,” Hewitt said. “It’s just that the best player going around is pretty bloody good.”

What happens, then, if you place Federer into a bracket with Newcombe, Becker, Rosewall, all of the great players of all time? What if they, too, have today’s equipment and today’s training? How far does Federer get? Who stops him? How?

Federer is young. No, he hasn’t caught Sampras yet. No, he hasn’t caught Borg. No, he isn’t his sport’s Attila. Yet.

On the other hand, he’s gaining. And short of him being drafted by the Swiss Army, it doesn’t appear anyone else is going to slow him down.

Can you imagine anyone stopping Federer?

Only in your imagination.

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