Tennis Freaks

“1821: Nadal, I’ve noticed, has a problem with his shorts, in that they keep on getting stuck up his jacksie and he has to pull them out before every point. Not sure why he doesn’t just get a size up, he’s probably loaded.”

Federer’s dominance hurting interest in tour

Matthew Cronin / Special to 

Roger Federer didn’t lose a match this fall and may not lose another until the spring clay court season kicks off in April. By then he will have broken Jimmy Connors’ all-time record of consecutive weeks at No. 1 (he’ll bust the mark of 160 straight by the end of February) and likely captured his third Australian Open title — giving him 10 majors by the age of 25.

He is arguably the most appealing player ever to take the court. There seems to be no shot he can’t produce, and he moves as quickly as a comet.Call him the first wonder of the tennis world.

But because Federer is practically untouchable, he’s numbing interest in the rest of the tour. With the exception of second-ranked Rafael Nadal — whom Federer has beaten twice in a row — no player seriously threatened Federer in 2006.

Spainard Rafael Nadal is one of only two players to beat Roger Federer in 2006 (Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images)

Outside of Nadal, none of the six elite players who made the Tennis Masters Cup Shanghai field defeated Federer this year. Everyone else is competing for second place, which is taking away some of the drama.

After the Swiss phenom blitzed him 6-0, 6-3, 6-4, in the final of Tennis Masters Cup, American James Blake could only shake his head. On his best days against some other elite players, Blake looks like he has the weaponry to contend with Federer. That is, until he steps on court with him and his shots seem to lack zip and purpose.

“We’re all chasing Roger,” said Blake, who has yet to beat Federer in six matches. “It’s no secret. He’s playing head and shoulders above the rest of us. It’s gonna be tough for anyone to dethrone him.”

Over the past three years, Federer has notched an amazing 247-15 match record with 34 titles; this year he went 92-5 with four losses coming to the 20-year-old Nadal and one to Andy Murray, a 19-year-old Scotsman.

Maybe the young guns in 2007 can step up and bring Federer back to the pack, because it doesn’t seem like any member of his peer group will be able to do it.

There are some very good players around Federer’s age, but he owns all of them now. You can argue that American Andy Roddick — who held three match points against Federer in Shanghai but fell in three sets — is getting closer to the Swiss phenom. But in reality he’s 1-12 against the guy and although he has the ability to score the odd win over Federer, he just doesn’t have the all-around game to consistently threaten him. If he did, the rivalry would have turned around by now.

Possibly, because the left-handed Nadal constantly hits the ball to Federer’s one-handed backhand, Federer has practiced and improved that side this year and now can whip one backhand down the line winners with his eyes shut, something he couldn’t do in 2005. So now, he overmatches Nadal on that side and can get other elite right-handers like David Nalbandian, Ivan Ljubicic and Nikolay Davydenko off balance. Unless a player is having a career day serving or becomes the second coming of Pete Sampras at the net (no member of the top 10 is an all-time great volleyer), Federer can dictate play from the backcourt because he hasn’t shown any real weaknesses there.

“It’s definitely scary, and it gives us more motivation to get better,” Blake said. “The tour keeps getting better. He needs to (keep improving) to continue his dominance. He’s doing it, which is scary. It’s a tough proposition to beat a guy that doesn’t have a weakness, just more evidence that he’s the best of all time.”

That’s a slight overstatement, given that Federer is still five Grand Slam crowns behind Sampras. But Blake is pretty much speaking for his generation when he says that they’ve all but conceded the top spot to Federer unless he gets injured.

Even Federer himself is looking to the next generation for potential rivals.

“There’s many on the verge of breaking the top 10,” he said. “Murray, (Richard) Gasquet … and even (Tomas) Berdych is making his move slowly, (Novak) Djokovic as well. (Gael) Monfils played well in the beginning of the year, so I think they’re between making the break and not quite sure yet. Maybe they need another year. Obviously, the strongest of that pack is still Nadal. I just think the other guys seem to need a bit more time.”

Federer is being generous to the kids because he’d like another rival or two to whet his whistle, but knows that given their collective lack of experience that it’s unlikely that all of them will make a substantial splash next year. He also knows that if he plays up to his level he has a fine shot at winning the calendar year Grand Slam, and certainly would love to avenge his one Grand Slam defeat at the French Open to Nadal.

He’ll likely end 2007 as he ended 2006 — an absolute ruler in what is supposed to be a democratic sport.

“I hope it stays for a little longer, the domination,” Federer said. “It’s very difficult to keep it up. I hope I can (maintain that level of play), and I’m looking forward to the challenge of 2007, no doubt.”


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