Agassi aside, it's time to Appreciate Federer.
Agassi aside, it's time to appreciate Federer
Updated 9/5/2006 4:02 AM
NEW YORK — The U.S. Open was an international forum of slumped shoulders and sour pusses Monday, as life without Andre's agony began with little circumstance and no pomp. Men and women were at work on Labor Day, trying in vain to fill the Agassi void, and the popped-like-a-balloon crowd did its best to grin and fake it.
The hangover was hard to shake, a testament to the enduring appeal of a bleached-out punk who grew into a wise old man. But if Agassi's forced retirement in the third round temporarily sucked the life out of an event that prefers its star power dipped in shades of red, white and blue, it should provide Open spectators an opportunity available to no other fan base:
The appreciation of Tiger Woods' equal.
While Woods was busy smacking around Vijay Singh for his fifth consecutive victory, Roger Federer was enjoying a break from the Grand Slam grind, hitting some practice balls, roaming the locker room, and waiting to Tigerize the next poor soul standing in his historic path. At 25, Federer is the only man alive who has a shot to win more majors than the 30-year-old Woods, and yet you'd never know it as a casual U.S. Open fan. In fact, if on-site buzz and prime-time schedules were your primary measuring tools, you would assume that Federer, two-time defending Open champ, was ranked somewhere between Justin Gimelstob and Mardy Fish.
Federer was finally granted a featured night match, scheduled for Tuesday, and somewhere in Manhattan he was heard saying hallelujah to that.
• Fact: Federer has won eight Grand Slam titles in the last four years, twice as many as Woods.
• Fact: Federer has a shot here to go 3-for-4 in majors for the second time in three years.
• Fact: The USTA would prefer that James Blake or Andy Roddick beat him.
The It factor has always scored heavily at the Open, which might explain why the ever-photogenic, all-American Blake was given the Arthur Ashe stage the other night while Federer was nudged over to the old place, Louis Armstrong.
Nothing against Blake, a perfect model of decorum in a sport traditionally overrun by divas and boors. But let's face it: He's never even advanced to a Grand Slam semi.
Federer? "It's not a question of if he'll break my record, but when he'll break my record," said Pete Sampras, who set the standard of 14 major championships. "I see a lot of good players out there facing him, but no great players."
Sampras was a great player who didn't "sell" until he aged. He wasn't profane and didn't throw rackets and didn't carve his career around some rebel-boy campaign dreamed up on Madison Avenue.
By all accounts, Federer is the same kind of gentleman. A substance-over-style guy. A terminator who terminates with dignity and class.
He hasn't lost a set in his first three matches. But if American tennis officials believe that dominance is boring, their convictions are hardened when the dominator is packing a Swiss passport.
It's no secret the Open coddles American stars, and that a California-bred Federer wouldn't be left to wonder in a news conference how much he'd have to do to get his night in the Arthur Ashe lights.
The Swiss Can't Miss has handled his lounge-act standing with ease, and all but reveled in the Agassi love-in, telling tales of how he watched Andre's night moves from under the covers of his hotel bed, shivering from the nerves.
Maybe it's because Federer recalls that he hammered Agassi, and all of his home-field advantages, in last year's final. Maybe it's because Federer realizes his on-court goals are so much bigger than any Agassi attained. "We all dream about a career like (Agassi) had," Federer said diplomatically.
Of course he's already had Agassi's career, matching his eight majors with a bunch more to go. After Sampras retired, Carl Munnerlyn, the Open's locker room supervisor, handed Federer the keys to Sampras' locker.
Federer did a double take over the disclosure of his new home. "Oh really," he said. "That's nice."
"Pete was the man," Munnerlyn said, "and now Roger is the man. He deserved to have that locker."
With Sampras and Agassi gone, Federer deserves to be appreciated for all his prime-time talents. He deserves to be treated as the only athlete on the planet who belongs on Tiger Woods' course.
Ian O'Connor also writes for The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News