09-11) 04:00 PDT New York -- Seldom has a two-week period brought such rich perspective to the sport of tennis. The U.S. Open began with Billie Jean King's name attached to the National Tennis Center and moved quickly to the Andre Agassi saga. For a pleasant spell on Sunday, Martina Navratilova was given a heartfelt farewell in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
So much for the past and the last vestiges of glory. Roger Federer's performance in the men's final was an earth-shaking testament to contemporary brilliance. His 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1 dismissal of Andy Roddick, crafted in swirling winds under a gloomy overcast, carried that frightening element only the greatest performances convey.
For the better part of an hour, Roddick was competing on even terms. Suddenly, Federer was vulnerable. And then Roddick was gone, merely a little poof of dust in Federer's wake. It's one thing to have the great Jimmy Connors on your side, looming in a courtside box for inspiration. It's another to take on history. There is a growing suspicion that Roddick's conqueror is the greatest player of all time.
It will take Federer's retirement to yield a proper judgment, but consider this: When measuring Federer against the legends, forget that "Open era" distinction (1968 on) so common to the debates. No man ever pulled off the Wimbledon-U.S. Open double three times in a row -- not Bill Tilden, not Don Budge, not Rod Laver. To do it once is the accomplishment of a lifetime. Three times is just plain ridiculous, and that's where Federer stands alone. (Helen Wills was the only woman to do so, from 1927 through '29.)
Maybe that's why Tiger Woods became such an animated spectator as Federer, ever in character, sensed the kill and steamrolled to his ninth major championship. Sitting in the first row of Federer's box, Woods had been supremely cool all day, just a guy in jeans and a simple white shirt, cap on backward, not particularly noticeable. But now he was applauding, earnestly, with the occasional "Come on, Rog." These two guys barely know each other, but they share things even brothers wouldn't understand.
Linked in the corporate world by Nike and the International Management Group, Federer and Woods were going to be featured together, eventually, whether they liked it or not. But as Federer said, "It was great. This was the first time we've really had a chance to chat. It's funny how he knows exactly how I feel on the court. A guy who feels invincible at times, sensing that nothing can go wrong anymore. Like Tiger in the final round, I guess."
There certainly was much to admire in Roddick's display, in its way, among the best of his career. Reeling from a first set that left even the most ardent Federer watchers in awe, Roddick responded with his newfound confidence and was dead even at 5-5 in the third set. But after a routine hold by Federer, everything changed. Roddick opened his service game with a shanked forehand into the net, and soon it was 0-40, the entire afternoon hanging in the balance.
Roddick managed an ace for 15-40, then uncorked a titanic serve that forced Federer into a desperate, lunging backhand. Somehow he floated it back. Roddick smoked a forehand down the line. Federer answered with a delicately sliced backhand, and when Roddick netted his backhand volley, the set was gone -- along with the drama. Federer's punishing blitz to the title was stunning to behold.
"For a while, there wasn't much between us," Roddick said. "I was right there with him, you know? I'm disappointed, but I'm also proud of the two weeks I had here. I can't wait to spend the off-season working with Jimmy (Connors) for an extended period of time."
Connors couldn't be more ready. He was almost defiant in the players' lounge afterward, especially when he overheard Roddick say in the interview room, "I just want to keep doing it. If I lose to Roger in eight Grand Slam finals, that's fine."
"No!" Connors said. "That's B.S., and you can quote me. Andy's a gentleman to say that, but there are three men in the mix now, make no mistake. I want to give Andy the attitude where he doesn't care who he plays. He's going to be winning Grand Slam titles in a year or two, and hang on for the ride! I hope you enjoy it as much as I'm going to."
Hey, if you say so, Jimmy. For heaven's sake, Roddick was a lost soul just six weeks ago. Now he looks like No. 2 in the world, or at least someone ready to face any player on even terms.
Reporters were eager to get Woods' take on things, and he spoke very briefly as he hastily left the building. "Roger is awesome at what he does," said Tiger, smiling. "He gets it done."
"With his mind, too?" someone asked.
Federer, meanwhile, has a secret plan. "I'm going to show up at every Grand Slam Tiger plays and get him back," he said, trying to keep a straight face. "Just when he's about to win, 18th green, I'll be standing there."
As opposed to lying flat on his back, which was Federer's posture after this comprehensive victory. Only Bjorn Borg earned his ninth major quicker than Federer (22 Grand Slams to 30), who broke out of his tie with Connors, Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl, Fred Perry and Ken Rosewall on the all-time list. Federer became the first man to win three straight U.S. Opens since Lendl in 1987, and he also produced 69 winners against only 19 unforced errors, an amazing ratio.
So what was it like, lying there in the middle of the court? "A great moment, once again," Federer said. "I deserved to lie down (laughter). It felt great, you know, just lying on the floor alone. It was good. Very comfortable. Thank God I didn't injure myself."
It seems that on top of everything else, the once-stoic Federer is becoming a pleasure in the interview room, as well. He seems more comfortable with himself than ever before, a man in search of levity. The evolution of this champion is something very close to perfection.
Is Andy really in the mix with Nadal and Federer now, or is it too early to say that?