Real Federer miles above the rest

If you believe Roger Federer, his pursuit of Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles happened almost by accident.

updated: August 20, 2007 17:53 IST
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Mason, Ohio:

If you believe Roger Federer, his pursuit of Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles happened almost by accident.

This was not a kid who grew up dreaming of tennis stardom: Fascinated by basketball, Federer says, he decorated his bedroom with posters of Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal.

If you believe Federer, he is not "too obsessed" with getting the better of Rafael Nadal, no matter what it takes. Federer did, after all, give his on-court nemesis a ride on a private jet from last week's tournament in Montreal to this week's tournament here after learning that Nadal was having trouble finding a suitable commercial flight.

Yep, there they were, miles above the earth, Roger and Rafa, chatting with their girlfriends over a sushi lunch, like any pair of wealthy pals. Would McEnroe have done that for Connors?

If you believe Federer, he was an overly competitive, emotional wreck as a teen - and that was just when he played chess with his father, knocking pieces off the board with a swipe of his hand after losing. He took tennis setbacks hard back then, too, he says, smashing rackets and crying inconsolably after defeats.

Eventually, in his early 20s, Federer says, he learned to control such feelings, part of a general maturation that led to his steady on-court demeanor; tears shed nowadays are of the joyous variety.

Self-doubt and awe

If you believe Federer, he lives with self-doubt, with the worry that he'll awake one morning and no longer have the skills that have put him at No 1 in the rankings for a record 185 consecutive weeks, that have led to a 93.5 winning percentage since 2004, that have earned him 11 Grand Slam titles heading into the August 27-September 9 US Open, that awe opponents and fans and, yes, even Federer himself.

"I surprise myself, almost every day," he said during an interview this week.

"The shots I come up with. And if I win, you know, I'm surprised I won. And if I won, I'm surprised I won that easily, sometimes, you know. I win a tough match, and I can't believe the way I got out of it. So, yeah, I get surprised over and over again."

Yet there's that gnawing sense it all could slip away, a feeling that rushes over him from time to time, particularly in the restless hours preceding a big match played at night.

It's why he says he's always looking to improve, why he can't seem to settle on a coach and, indeed, is currently without one.

"I have this worry that I'm not going to play well.... That the day comes where I don't know how to hit a forehand anymore, you know? That I'm blank," Federer said, holding his palms up for emphasis. "That I come on the court and I can't do it."

Implausible as that might sound, you certainly want to believe Federer, and believe in Federer - believe that he's genuine.

"I have heard of stories of people getting sometimes money offered for losing a match and stuff. A lot of money," Federer said. "Nowadays, sports has some funny things going on. Maybe it's just a bad period."

Loved by all

Everyone you speak to in the world of tennis has nothing but positive things to say about Federer.

"He's everything you would want and expect a decent person to be, and yet he's been able to make a lie of the truism that good guys finish second, because, in this case, he's a good guy that comes first all the time," ATP executive chairman Etienne de Villiers said in a telephone interview.

He and Federer haven't always seen eye-to-eye on tour issues such as instant replay. Still, de Villiers summed up his sentiments this way: "He's the kind of guy that every mother would like their daughter to marry."

Said Vince Spadea, a former top 20 player: "Roger's a tremendous gentleman, very cordial. He's not too big for what he's accomplished; it hasn't gotten to him."

In the players' lounge and outside the locker room, Federer draws smiles, handshakes and greetings from past and future opponents, players whose careers might have been oh-so-different had a certain someone born in Basel, Switzerland, in August 1981, stuck to basketball. Or soccer, Federer's other early love.

Take Andy Roddick, the last player other than Federer to win the US Open, in 2003. The last player other than Federer to finish a year ranked No 1, also in 2003. Someone who has lost three Grand Slam finals, all to Federer. Someone who is 1-13 against Federer.

"I have loads of respect for him, as a person as well," Roddick said after their 2005 Wimbledon title match. "I've told him before: 'I'd love to hate you, but you're really nice."'

Worthy heir

Bjorn Borg said that if someone had to match his modern mark of five consecutive Wimbledon titles, he was pleased for it to be Federer. Sampras, too, considers Federer a worthy heir.

"Before, I felt under pressure when people were saying, 'He's going to break Sampras' record,' and I was only at five or six," Federer said. "Now I feel like it's closer."

He also hopes to play another five years, at least, adding perhaps a major title per season.

If there's a knock on Federer, it's that he's, well, boring. He doesn't berate chair umpires. Or toss rackets. Or get into fights with paparazzi. It's a notion Federer called "totally unfair."

"People are intrigued with crazy things, you know, in this day and age, especially with reality TV shows and stuff. I see where they are coming from, but ... I still believe that good manners and politeness is the better way to go," he said.

"And if that's boring, then I'm sorry for the people who say that it is boring."

Arlen Kantarian, the US Tennis Association's chief executive of pro tennis, thinks any criticism of being "boring" is more than overwhelmed by Federer's "sense of dignity and style and class."

"He is, I think, also one of those players that we're going to tell our grandchildren about 20 years from now," he said. "We saw Roger Federer play.' That's how significant to the game he has - and will - become."