Tuesday, August 3, 2004

Relaxed Federer has tight grip on top spot



By Neil Schmidt
Enquirer staff writer

MASON - Andy Roddick plays rock 'n roll tennis - hit the ball as loud as you can - and has dared to both skydive and host Saturday Night Live.

Agassi
Andre Agassi returns in the third set against Mardy Fish during first round play at the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters.
(Craig Ruttle/The
Cincinnati Enquirer)
More photos from Monday

TENNIS COVERAGE
Mason showcases stars
Agassi wins after vow to go down swinging
Relaxed Federer has tight grip on top spot
French champ seeks success on hard courts
Haas reaches goals as quickly as he sets them
Injured Clijsters joins fiance Hewitt at tourney
Russian ends losing streak with first win in two months
Fish's bad back serves up another loss
Masters results, schedules

Then there's his foil, Roger Federer. Tune the dial to the left and relax.

"It's like watching classical music, watching jazz," NBC analyst Mary Carillo said of Federer. "He is a combination of athlete and artist."

For Federer, it's hard work making it look this easy. The world's top tennis player speaks of wellness and sleeping, of needing to ease the mental fatigue.

If that's so, no one needs a nap more.

Federer has won 23 consecutive matches and 31 of his last 32. His is the longest winning streak on the ATP Tour in five years, and with a win today against Dominik Hrbaty in the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters, he would match Pete Sampras (1999) for the longest streak since 1995.

He has won three of the past five Grand Slams, 24 consecutive matches on grass, and is unbeaten in his last 10 finals appearances. Sunday, he became the first player since Bjorn Borg in 1979 to win consecutive titles on three different surfaces.

A scarce 13 months after his first Slam title, the 22-year-old from Switzerland has sparked the "best ever" conversation.

"I don't think it's too early for that talk," ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said. "The game is there to be one of the best ever."

Said McEnroe's Hall of Fame brother, John: "He might be the smoothest, most talented player I've ever laid eyes on."

Federer speaks of the mental hurdles in his past. He said that as recently as at this event last year, he played tight and lost early because he had a chance to gain the No. 1 ranking.

SOUNDING OFF
What some famous tennis players have said of Federer:

"He doesn't seem to have a weakness. ... He does have a chance to be one of the greatest players to ever live, no doubt."
-- John McEnroe

"He does everything great. He knows the game well. As good as it gets out there, really."
-- Andre Agassi

"Roger's the greatest, most complete player I have ever seen."
-- Patrick Rafter

"He's a player that really could dominate the game a little bit, the same way Pete Sampras did for a while."
-- Stefan Edberg

"Federer is a genius. He's got more talent than Sampras. I don't know if he'll win as much as Pete, but potentially he's stronger."
-- Goran Ivanisevic

"Roger Federer is most probably a better player than Pete Sampras was. I think Federer can win all four (Grand Slams)."
-- Mats Wilander

Now he is not only No. 1, but the owner this year of eight titles and a 57-4 mark, the best since Ivan Lendl was 58-4 during the 1989 season. Federer, ballyhooed since winning the Wimbledon juniors title in 1998, is finally at ease with the expectations.

"Well, this is the next step now, huh?" he said. "First they were saying I'm going to maybe be No. 1 in the world ... and now it's 'the best of all time.'

"I can handle it. I know I'm very far away and everything, and still very young. ... It's not something I'm shooting for."

Federer relies on no one stroke, but there isn't a vulnerability in his game. He's the most complete player since Borg. His is a game based on instinct, and that's where his head is crucial.

"For me, the game feels natural," Federer said. "I feel like I'm living the game when I'm out there. I feel (where) a guy is going to hit the ball. I just feel that I've got that figured out, and that is a huge advantage."

Things weren't always this smooth. For years, Federer routinely lost early at the majors, later conceding that he was mentally weak.

"Sometimes in tough matches in the past, players would know that I would maybe go away if it was a physical, tough match," he said. "I would either get tired or lose my mind. I was too young; my game was too wild."

Then there was pressure. He spoke of "being expected to do it ... that fear of being put in a box of losers, of underachievers."

Those were tears of relief dripping on the Wimbledon lawn last July. Federer would finish last year No. 2 and has been nearly untouchable this year.

"He's got an aura about him in the locker room," Roddick said. "Mentally, he's so confident right now. A lot of his success right now is between the ears."

Federer said he used to lose sleep over facing the likes of David Nalbandian, Tim Henman, Lleyton Hewitt, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Andre Agassi. He was a combined 5-23 against them until December 2003. He has since beaten all of them, with an 11-1 combined mark.

Federer keeps things simple. At the end of last year, he fired coach Peter Lundgren, and hasn't replaced him. He has no agent. His girlfriend serves as a business manager. When Federer takes time off, he sleeps.

"The first week (off) is like, 'I'm so tired, I can't move, I can't even walk to the bar (or) to the restaurant,' " he said. "It's just huge mental tiredness. ... The rest I have is really just recovery."

Federer is huge in much of the world: Man of the Year in his country, a finalist for the Laureaus World Sportsman of the Year. Maybe his Q-rating isn't as big in America, where Roddick rules, but Federer's reserved nature could eventually be overshadowed by the sheer weight of his success.

Whatever the scrutiny, Roger Federer is learning to handle it. Embrace it, even.

"This year has been fantastic for me," Federer said. "I'm enjoying the situation very much. I don't try to put myself under too much pressure because in the end you want to enjoy playing. And that's what I love doing."

---

E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com

Longest ATP winning streaks

PlayerYearMatches
1. Thomas Muster199535
2. Pete Sampras199429
3. Andre Agassi199526
4. Jim Courier199225
5. Pete Sampras199924
6. Roger Federer200423
t7. Stefan Edberg1990-9121
t7. Ivan Lendl199021
t7. Pete Sampras199621
10. Pete Sampras1996-9720
Note: Since 1990




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TENNIS
Mason showcases stars
Photos from Monday
Agassi wins after vow to go down swinging
Relaxed Federer has tight grip on top spot
French champ seeks success on hard courts
Haas reaches goals as quickly as he sets them
Injured Clijsters joins fiance Hewitt at tourney
Russian ends losing streak with first win in two months
Fish's bad back serves up another loss
Masters results, schedules

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