(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
He is Tiger Woods by another name. He is Manny Pacquiao on the tennis court. He is the undisputed title-holder, the pound-for-pound champion in this sport using yellow balls, linesmen, deuces. Since Feb. 2, 2004—that’s four long years ago—he has been world no. 1, a record 217 nonstop weeks on Mount Everest.
He is, as you know, Federer Express. Why that moniker? Because his service deliveries, like the courier company FedEx, is peerless and sublime. A 128-mph ace down the ‘T’ that you want delivered right this minute? “Sure,” he answers, then pounds an ace. A forehand crosscourt winner on breakpoint that you need now? “No problem,” he adds, thumping an unreachable shot down the corner.
For with Roger Federer, here’s the slogan: I’ll Deliver. And deliver he has. Last year, out of the four Grand Slam singles titles, he won three. The year before, he won the same number: 3 of 4. In the past four years, he’s won 11 of the last 16 major titles.
(Matthew Stockman/Getty Images; below photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
But wait. It’s 2008. The Year of the Rat. A year that, while associated with an animal that brings wealth, is also associated with death, war, pestilence and atrocities. Is this, I ask, a bad luck year for Mr. FedEx?
So far, yes. At the Australian Open, he lost in straight sets to Novak Djokovic. At the Dubai Open, he was shocked by Andy Murray—in the first round! And now, just days ago at the Pacific Life Open, he played Mardy Fish and lost in one hour, 6-3, 6-2. Fish, only the 98th-ranked fish in the tennis ocean, was the lowest-ranked player to beat RF in nearly three years! Which makes this the first time since he became No.1 that Roger has failed to reach a final in three straight events. And so, in three simple words, thus far this year…
He hasn’t delivered.
What happened? Should we panic? Feel shocked? And should Djokovic be ready to plant his name and flag on Mount Everest?
No, no, no. For here’s what happened: Roger is human. Unlike the past years when he’s showed us that he wasn’t, today we know that he is, like you and me, blood and flesh. We also know Roger was ill. At the Oz Open, he suffered from a disease called mononucleosis. And weeks after that, recovering from the sickness, he couldn’t practice enough.
Panic? Should we? Nope. Said Andy Roddick: “You guys are shutting the door on Fed too quickly, it’s a little ridiculous.” Andy’s right. Tennis is not an easy sport. It’s a game where tens of millions of people from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe play—and so the competition’s plenty. Tennis is a game where, if you catch a cold or flu the night before a match, it will sap your energy on game-day. And, unlike basketball, you can’t get a substitute, right? It’s a contest where “the ball is round” and anything can happen. So what’s perplexing, in fact, is how the Federer Express has dominated the way he has.
“I’m surprised myself it hasn’t happened more in the last five years,” said Federer of his loss to Mardy Fish.
He’s correct. Because we have come to expect Roger to win every time he plays—like Tiger—then, for any misstep, people scream, “He’s going down!”
No, Roger is not going down. Pete Sampras’ record of 14 majors? Without doubt, Federer, only 26, will break that. My guess is he’ll harvest 16 majors.
As to Djokovic? He’s real. And only 20. Plus, with the clay-court season nearing (remember Rafael Nadal?), then we might see the end of Roger’s Reign.
What can Roger do?
Win. Hire a full-time coach. Carry the trophy this week at the Sony-Ericsson Open. Pat himself at the back for the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award he received (voted by his fellow players) for the fourth consecutive year. And, if the rumors are true, congratulate himself for an accomplishment that not many of his colleagues can boast of: His girlfriend, Mirka Vavrinec, rumors say, is pregnant. In which case then, we’ll have to revise that slogan…..