Saturday, March 19, 2005
Quiet, reserved Federer is more than a typical tennis star
By Jerry Green / The Detroit News
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Most of them are extra tall and wear their hair to their shoulders. The men and the women, both. They speak Russian or Spanish or German as their first language, though the grunts when they hit the tennis balls are identical in any language. They are young, rich, well traveled and terribly pampered.
When the sun shines -- as it usually does here in the California desert -- the athletes are shaded during the rest intervals beneath umbrellas wielded by scurrying youngsters with their own lofty aspirations.
From this collection of athletic aristocrats, Roger Federer has emerged to become the champion of the tennis set. He is genuine, and his game is pure, and he stands in at a normal 6-foot-1.
Federer, in the past year, has become the most dominant athlete in sports. I think of Tiger Woods when he was hot and blistered every golf course. This Federer guy, at age 23, is hotter.
He is as hot as Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors were -- combined -- during the boom years of tennis. He is as hot as Pete Sampras was when the sport dipped into its decline. As hot as Rod Laver generations ago. As hot as Boris Becker when he arrived with sudden thunder, diving and tumbling and winning at Wimbledon.
"The most talented player I ever laid eyes on," McEnroe often has said publicly to journalists.
And as we all know, John sometimes is prone to dipping into the tart, critical, sarcastic commentary about athletes in the sport he once popularized in America.
Similar to McEnroe? Roger Federer is hardly a John McEnroe. On the court, his body language is well below the demonstrative level displayed by the angry young tennis athletes of years ago. Off the court, to this first-time viewer, he seems quiet and self-effacing.
But he is a championship tennis player. Wimbledon two years ago. Australian, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year. Three-quarters of the grand slam in 2004, just like Connors 30 years before. McEnroe never did that. Borg and Sampras never did that. No men's singles player had won three grand slam events in the same year since Mats Wilander in 1988.
And in America, Federer still is woefully under-publicized. He remains relatively unknown except to those who relish the sport so much that they attend matches dressed as wannabees in their own tennis costumes.
Once he broke through at Wimbledon in July of 2003, all of it has been quite simple for Federer. Sort of.
"When I go into a match, that's what I think about, that it's going to be a tough one even though I'm a big favorite," Federer said this week as he dominated another tournament on his championship tour around the world.
He had just rubbed out another opponent, Gilles Muller from Luxembourg, in the Pacific Life Open at the pristine Indian Wells Tennis Garden. The score was 6-3, 6-2. Federer felt he had been challenged -- and perhaps he was.
"I had the match under control all the time," Federer said. "Maybe the match took longer than it usually does. I took too many chances. We had a couple of long games."
Very simple, an account of another crush job.
Roger from Switzerland, playing in his powder-blue shorts and matching tennis shoes, wearing his white headband with the Nike swoosh, and ferociously swinging his red-and-white racquet with the Wilson W etched onto the strings.
These international athletes have become human billboards for American sporting goods purveyors.
Observed from high above the deep purple Stadium 1 Court of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, Federer displays a tennis game that combines power with deftness and the ability to chase down shots. On the occasional point, he forces himself to dive onto the hard court surface. Something out of Boris Becker.
"You almost have to mix it up, you know?" Federer would say after his victory.
He wows the crowd with a backhand winning shot into a corner. His one-handed backhand, he says proudly later, shunning the two-fisted style now used by most of these tennis vagabonds.
He lambastes his strokes from the backcourt, then wins a set with a drop shot from near the net.
From my perch, Federer reminds me of a crafty pitcher. His serve is clocked at 121 miles an hour, then an ace at 126 miles per -- and then he breaks it up with a twisting first serve clocked at slow-motion 90.
Similar to McEnroe?
There was an obvious bad call the other day. Federer pointed to the where Muller's serve had landed -- out.
Federer muttered a word or two.
After his victory, he discussed his language skills.
"English, French and German," he said, hesitating, then continuing, "Swiss German and some Italian."
What he muttered when he was dismayed was in English.
"Anything," he said.
Becker was the player Federer watched when he was a lad learning tennis in the Swiss city of Basel. Federer would watch as the TV flicked the signal in from Wimbledon in the 1980s.
"He was always there," Federer said. "He was my favorite player. He was from Germany, I'm from Switzerland, you know, we're neighbors."
Federer is 24-1 in his matches this early in 2005. He has already won three tournaments -- the Doha, Rotterdam and Dubai events -- while trotting the globe. He plays today in the semifinals of the Pacific Life Open, a tournament he won last year along with his three grand slam victories.
But it takes four to win the grand slam. And Federer is not destined to win the grand slam this year as Laver did in 1969. Federer missed out by losing in the French last year. His solitary loss this year was in the Australian to Marat Safin, from the Russian contingent.
Some year, the grand slam -- the Australian, French, Wimbledon and the U.S. Opens in succession - will be won again, in one calendar year.
And Roger Federer is just 23, only recently emerged -- and hot. The most talented player John McEnroe ever laid eyes on!
You can reach Jerry Green at email@example.com