In one of the early Sports Notes columns, we boldly predicted that Roger Federer would become the greatest player in the history of the tennis. That was almost ten years ago when Federer was 20 years old. I had seen a televised match in which Federer defeated the great American player Pete Sampras. It wasn’t that Federer beat Sampras that so impressed me; rather it was the way he played the game.
At a distance, Federer seemed to play without great effort. He seemed to play with an easy, fluid smoothness. But, on up-close televised shots, one could see him playing close to the court with deeply bent knees that were churning furiously almost as high as his shoulders. Plus, his upper body was quiet and still with his alert eyes always on the ball. And, there was a pure joy for the game that somehow emanated to his courtside audience and his TV audience.
The great players are measured more by the amount of Grand Slam tournaments they win than the amount of time they are ranked #1 in the world. Pete Sampras won l4 Grand Slam titles to set a new record for Grand Slam wins. But, Sampras was lost on clay courts and, therefore, the French Open Grand Slam played in Paris was always out of his reach.
Roger Federer, the Swiss tennis star, did win the French Open in ‘09. Plus, Federer was the second finest clay court player of his era behind only Rafael Nadal, the great Spanish player. Federer has now won 16 Grand Slams to surpass the Sampras record. It is the l6 ‘slam championships plus his French Open championship that caused Tennis Nation to vote him, prior to the beginning of the 2010 tennis season, as the games greatest player, ever!
But prior to the Australian Open, the tennis tour’s first Grand Slam, Federer contracted mononucleosis. He played through the disease and suffered some surprising losses on courts throughout the world without ever using the disease as an excuse. He played the pro tour in a weakened condition because he loves the game, and he felt a responsibility to the pro tour and its sponsors to show up and do his best. But, I could see that during that year, his movement was no longer low to the ground. His knees were bent only slightly and this shortened the extension of his strokes. Plus, he strained his lower back which has continued to curtail the velocity of his serve.
But, he is still a great player. In ‘08, as the mono wore off his body, he and his Swiss doubles partner won the ‘08 Men’s Tennis Doubles portion of the Olympics. And later that summer, he won America’s Grand Slam, the US Open in New York.
When I watch Federer play tennis, he is close to my vision of tennis realized. But one can see a kick serve coming, which will bounce high, while competing in tennis. One can see a high topspin ball coming while competing on the court. Federer should take his racquet back above his shoulder while turning his shoulders and waist. Then, unwind at the high ball, forcefully thinking to strike the ball hard just above the center of the ball. This thought will cause your racquet to create a bevel that correctly allows one to hit out hard and accurately against high balls.
Federer doesn’t do this which is why I use the term “close” to my ideal tennis vision. Andre Agassi did do this high racquet take back which gave him his great return game.
Still, next to Mohammed Ali, Federer is my favorite athlete ever. I saw Sampras play at a tournament in Ojai, Califorina, when he was eleven years old and it was clear he could become the world’s best player. I saw Agassi practicing with Pancho Gonzales (another great player from an earlier era) in Las Vegas and I knew that he could be one of the world’s finest players. But, then there was Roger.