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Remember Me? I'm Roger Federer 01/18/2009 - 2:03 AM

Federer It's a cool, breezy Sunday here in Melbourne as tournament organizers tidy up for the big day. The event's heavy hitters--players like Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer--have booked their last pre-tournament practice sessions inside Rod Laver Arena. Those who don't rate for a Laver session are enjoying the sun on the outer courts and otherwise milling about. There's one last day to be calm, to be hopeful about 2009, to think big before the games count and reality settles in for most of the tour.

On the way to my desk this morning I came across Oracene Price, sitting on a ledge just inside the entrance at the base of the stadium (the bowels of Rod Laver house the media and the players' locker rooms, restaurant, and garden). Price tapped away on her BlackBerry, her daughters nowhere in sight. It's always worth talking to Price, because she never sounds like she's reciting lines that were written by someone with a doctorate in spin. Mom's assessment of Serena: "She'll be fine, as long as she keeps her temper under control." Isn't that customary for Serena on the practice court? "Yeah, but this is more than usual." Sounds to me like Serena is motivated, which is bad news for everyone else.

Another flash of bad news, this time for the men's field: Roger Federer feels fresh and confident. And this year, he's not kidding himself.

Last year at this time, Federer tried to convince all of us--and to convince himself--that he was healthy. He suffered two illnesses in the lead up to the tournament, but was told that food poisoning was the culprit. The diagnosis gave him hope, but it didn't take long before he realized he would have to win the tournament with something less than his best.

"Just trying to play at the highest level and you're one step slow, it's just not gonna work out," he said yesterday. Then he corrected himself. For the rest of us, a step slow means failure. For him, a step slow means failure--sometimes. "It will work out a few times, 70 or 80 percent of the time, but not 100 or 90 like it was the last few years."

This year, Federer is 100 percent, and he seems eager to settle a score or two. No doubt he'd like to remind people that his record in hard court majors, since January 2004, is 68-2 (and he held match point in one of those losses). No doubt he'd like to see Novak Djokovic in the semifinals again. No doubt he'd like to show odds makers that Andy Murray isn't the wisest choice for a champion.

What Federer wants to do most, though, is to make his legacy tarnish proof. When he was asked about recent improvements in the competition--something most of us who write about the sport, including me, take as fact--Federer had this to say.

"I know a lot of people are always saying this seems like a tough generation right now with Murray, Djokovic, Rafa and everything. I don't think it's that much stronger than when I came about. We had Agassi, Roddick, Hewitt, Safin, Ferrero, Nalbandian, all these other guys. It just always seems like two years on and nobody talks about what happened two years ago. I thought we've had very highquality tennis since a long time now. It's not just now that we have really four great players again. I think they were there before, but there were just different names."

Many of us have wondered if this generation--Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, and also Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Juan Martin Del Potro, Marin Cilic, and Ernests Gulbis) will one day be remembered as one of the best in history (I recently wrote about it here). The early indications are positive, yet if that ends up being the case, will it reduce what Federer accomplished before this generation matured? I think not, but it seems that the idea is on Federer's mind.

I was also struck by Federer's "two years on" comment, a jab at the media (and a justified one) for its lack of long-term memory. This, of course, is a disease that plagues every profession--in fact, most people. (It's quite useful: Imagine if you remembered everything in excruciating detail, rather than stressing the new and exciting at the expense of past miseries and banalities. Would you be happy for more than a few minutes at a time?)

A few years ago, when reporters used to ask Federer why the new generation was struggling, he would say that he was increasingly impressed with the likes of Murray and Djokovic, and that they would have their time. These days, he seems to be saying that they receive too much attention. In Federer's mind, Nadal is the only other player on the planet who has earned the right to be treated as a true champion. It's a reasonable argument, too. Murray and Djokovic, as good as they are, have played in three major finals and won a single title. Federer equaled that last year and it was considered his worst season since he became No. 1. It is, to some extent, a measure of our impatience, our hunger for the new and bold, that Djokovic and Murray are portrayed as such formidable figures. As Lleyton Hewitt put it earlier in the day, "You're a brave man to look outside those two [Federer and Nadal] as a favorite going into any Slam at the moment."

Federer doesn't want us to forget all the good he has done, or worse, begin to remember it as something that, in hindsight, wasn't as special as we once believed it to be (curious to know if any of you look at Sampras's career this way; I don't). Of course, there's only one thing he can do to make us remember his reign as he wants us to remember it. He has to win again and again, to prove himself again and again, even though he should have nothing to prove. He has to put this generation in its proper place--or risk that the conversation will end on someone else's terms. As Federer said two times on Sunday--both times with emphasis, so we wouldn't forget--"It's going to be an interesting year."


51 Comments

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Posted by 01/18/2009 at 10:29 AM

Federer will rise to the top and end this new era generation tennis talk! Federer will win the Austrialian Open and Wimbledon this year!

Posted by rose 01/18/2009 at 10:53 AM

federer no1 or not @ the end of the yr he sure has one thing right its going to b a very interesting yr coz i cant remember being this eager for the AO en the rest of the season for that matter!!!

Posted by Aabye 01/18/2009 at 10:58 AM

No, I don't think Sampras' career suffers so much from this myopic perspective at this point because it is still a relatively fresh memory. But when you look at the way Laver sometimes gets overlooked in the GOAT debate, I could see this happening as time rolls on, both to Sampras and Federer.

Posted by Gra-ke 01/18/2009 at 11:07 AM

I'm a big Rafa fan, but if there's a player who I want to win the aussie open this year (if Rafa won't be able to do so), I want it to be Federer. so that he can prove to the world, it's not yet time for them to write him off, ALLEZ ROGER!

Posted by Al 01/18/2009 at 11:11 AM

This post is spot on.
Great writing Tom.

Posted by Ro'ee 01/18/2009 at 11:19 AM

The interesting thing to me is that everybody remembers the Connors-Borg-Mcenroe era as wonderful even today, but a few months ago one of the Australian greats (can't remember which one) was asked, and he said that most Australians ex-pros consider that era to have been one of very poor quality.

Posted by claudia celestial girl 01/18/2009 at 11:30 AM

I totally agree with Aabye's comment about Rod Laver being overlooked in GOAT conversations. I don't think any player should be talked about as GOAT while that player is still playing (not retired), and for me - no French, no GOAT. Put a different way - if you haven't won on all surfaces, no GOAT.

Posted by Pica_pica (Supporter of the BIG 3) 01/18/2009 at 11:37 AM

Nah...Federer and Nadal have become soulmates...probably will unite and support each other to deal with the new generation

Posted by sa 01/18/2009 at 12:06 PM

"Federer did better than that last year (he went one for two in finals)"

- actually he went one for three

Posted by Edward 01/18/2009 at 12:10 PM

Tom,

Good article, but err, you state:

"Murray and Djokovic, as good as they are, have played in three major finals and won a single title. Federer did better than that last year (he went one for two in finals)"

Um, didn't Federer go one for THREE is finals last year? Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open?

I enjoyed reading it bar that.

Posted by Claire 01/18/2009 at 12:15 PM

Roger will win the Australian Open, MARK MY WORDS!

Posted by Drake bell 01/18/2009 at 12:33 PM

Hey whats up guys, its drake bell, i am actually a pretty big tennis fan and my favorite players are probably tommy haas and richard gasquet because i met them and they were like really cool guys so routing for them to win. Right now i am with my cousin Hiba for the month so just cooling off taking a break from acting to just watch the Australian open, and by the way rumors are spreading that drake and josh has ended, actually it didnt we have some new episodes coming your way. gotta go, working on a new song, catch ya later go to my myspace or youtube, and enjoy my music. Love ya, Jared Drake Bell

Posted by vlera 01/18/2009 at 12:39 PM

Roger is the best tennis player in the world
OF COURSE HE'LL WIN AUSTRALIAN OPEN

Posted by Donal Lynch 01/18/2009 at 12:40 PM

Sometimes we can just assume a new generation is better than the old. When Hingis and the Williams sisters first came on the scene and were winning Novotna was asked if the competition was much tougher now than in past years and she said something to the effect of "Tougher than Graf-Seles? Are you kidding me?" I definitely think it's a fair bet that Agassi-Sampras were tougher than Djokovic-Murray for Federer.

Posted by embug 01/18/2009 at 12:41 PM

Insightful post, Tom. Thank you. The year will be interesting, as all year's are. No matter the decade. No matter the day at hand.

No one can lose sight of Federer's accomplishments if they read them as they happened - in the past. His victories, his failures, his style... all his records and accomplishments will remain forever with history. We, as observers and witnesses to the sport and its players, can chose to reference historic angles and use comparisons as emphasis to current moments, or we can observe emphatically - absolute ball-by-ball points.

There's nothing more important to Roger Federer than the contact point. Your photograph for this post says it all. Millions of these strikes are his legacy. Today, the day before our first 2009 Grand Slam, Roger's wisdom or his self - as a tennis player - has sharpened. He's matured and become more comfortable with his own truths. What a joy to watch.

As TMF said, "'It will work out a few times, 70 or 80 percent of the time, but not 100 or 90 like it was the last few years.'"

Posted by Maha (May Slam no. 14 come within a fortnight!) 01/18/2009 at 12:43 PM

I've been touched. :'(
Roger... GO GET 'EM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
WHOOP WHOOOOP!!!!!!!!

All Hail The Mighty Federer. The King has stepped onto the battlefield. Be afraid. Be VERY afraid.

Posted by Cotton Jack 01/18/2009 at 01:39 PM

I'm wondering what odds one can get on Federer doing the grand slam this year. Not impossible:

1. Wins AO. Again
2. French Open. Rafa's body finally falls apart at the wrong moment
3. Wimbledon. On a role now
4. US Open: Three down and one to go ... are you kidding me ...?!

Worth a fiver of anyone's money

Posted by James 01/18/2009 at 01:41 PM

People have written off Federer too quickly. Last year, he had a "terrible" season, by reaching a semifinal, three finals, and winning one, at the Grand Slams. So if he has an "alright" season this year, he will probably reach all four finals and win at least one. No one challenges Federer at the slams except Nadal. I won't deny that Nadal is a great champion, and is almost unbeatable on clay. But I think grass is much better suited for Federer's game, and Nadal, at a slam, cannot challenge Federer on a hard court. I predict that Federer wins two slams this year: Wimbledon, and either the Australian or U.S. Open.

Posted by alljaa 01/18/2009 at 01:55 PM

How I love the sound of this. We would love to see the Federer of old dominate again; but he has competition--just as he has always had it only, as he points out, the names have changed and there is no protecting the innocent. It is put up or shut up time on the court - so let us get rocking!

Woo-Hoo Federer fans!

Posted by Filipe Young 01/18/2009 at 02:25 PM

It ain't over 'till it's over! GO ROGER!

Posted by me 01/18/2009 at 02:32 PM

i have always hated federer and root against him every time... however he always seems to bring out great tennis from his opponents... ill be rooting against him every match but can't wait to see how his opponents do

Posted by Sher 01/18/2009 at 03:42 PM

[ In Federer's mind, Nadal is the only other player on the planet who has earned the right to be treated as a true champion. It's a reasonable argument, too. Murray and Djokovic, as good as they are, have played in three major finals and won a single title. Federer did better than that last year (he went one for two in finals) and it was considered his worst season since he became No. 1.]

Love this paragraph!

(Although he was in THREE finals...)

Anyhow, I never thought Roddick is a worse player than Djokovic or Murray. At least, not yet. Hewitt, Nalbandian, Safin, those guys are all much more accomplished players. Novak and Andy will have their time in the sun, but for now, it's hard to say they are even equal to the players of the past, let alone better.

Posted by joger 01/18/2009 at 04:24 PM

Great post....

Posted by sol 01/18/2009 at 04:27 PM

i love to see rf and rafa in australian finals. good luck guys

Posted by Andrew 01/18/2009 at 04:49 PM

I think Federer also gives frequent shout outs to Lleyton Hewitt. His (Federer's) point, which I think is a good one, is that you have to show that you can get through six matches at a GS tournament more than once to be considered a favorite for a title.

Nadal has done this seven times, with two losses at the SF stage. Murray has one final, no SF losses; Djokovic has one win, one final loss, and three defeats in the SF stage. And Murray's the favorite now? He has a lot of momentum, and he's an excellent player. But Federer's argument is based on more than pique, I think.

I think Federer remembers how hard it was for him to break through on the GS stage. In his last major before Wimbledon 2003, he lost to Luis Horna in R128: no one in their right mind would have made Federer the favorite for Wimbledon that year, and my recollection is that Roddick was a strong favorite going into their SF match.

In some respects, I also think Federer thinks Nadal hasn't gotten enough of his due for what he's done in the last few years. Nadal had a career season in 2008 - as the players gathered for the Beijing Olympics, Nadal's recent tournament history (starting with Monte Carlo) was W, W, R32, W, W, W, W, W, SF. If I were Federer, I think that if I made the final, I'd possibly tell the cameras (and mean it, as he did last year in New York) that I'd enjoy playing Nadal. But I'd think I had a better chance of winning playing Murray, for now.

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