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Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Updated: January 22, 9:26 AM ET
Working Without a Net

By David Higdon and Dale Brauner

THE AMAZING FEDERER

What's a No.1 to do now that he's No. 2? Let's check. After 237 weeks at the top, Roger Federer was tamed last season by a combo of mono and Rafael Nadal. Now he must walk the highest high wire back to the top. Yes, the odds against him are long—some say impossible—but the greatest player of all time is not called Amazing for nothing. On with the challenges:

The points gap is off the chart. Federer won four tourneys in 2008, fewer than half the number he snagged each year from 2004 to '07. He won just one Slam (U.S. Open), putting him one behind Pete Sampras' all-time record of 14. This dip allowed Nadal to grab No. 1 in August. As of Jan. 8, Rafa had 13,160 rankings points to Federer's 10,610, which basically means Rafa must lose big and Fed will have to win bigger to reclaim the lead.

History is against him. Only once since the ATP created its rankings (1973) has a player finished a season at No. 1, lost the spot, then regained it (Ivan Lendl, 1989).

He's 27. The average age of the Top 10 players at the end of 2008 was 23.8, led by Nadal (22), No. 3 Novak Djokovic (21) and No. 4 Andy Murray (21). Federer has clearly lost a step, and his motivation is suspect. That will make it tough to fend off the youngsters, who all possess fast feet and great tools. Plus, not only is Nadal playing at his peak, but Djokovic, nearly as dangerous, is also hot on Federer's trail in points.

All of which explains why most experts say Federer can't reach No. 1 again, and why it will be nothing less than Amazing if he does.

WHIP IT GOOD

[Hurry, Hurry. Step right up!] No player commands more attention on center court than Rafael Nadal, and the showstopper's whipping forehand is the best shot under the Big Top. [Don't miss this freak of nature!] Why? For starters, he's a natural righty schooled by his uncle to play as a southpaw. [There will be tricks!] Next, his massively strong forearm allows him to use an unorthodox grip. [And feats of strength!] Finally, when he swings, he breaks all the rules of hitting a tennis ball. [And amazing displays of deception!] The result: a hard shot with wicked spin that hits the court and explodes high. "His forehand is massive," says No. 10-ranked James Blake. "There aren't many guys who can get that kind of torque on the ball and be so precise." [Hurry, Hurry. Step right up!]



DON"T EVEN BLINK

With 14 men in the top 100 (second only to Spain), France is making noise about snapping its Grand Slam drought. Sure, no Frenchman has won a Slam since 1983, when Yannick Noah captured Roland Garros (the country's only men's major in the open era). But French fortunes are changing, and several players could contend in 2009, including No. 6 GILLES SIMON (five career titles and 2008 wins over Nadal and Federer), No. 7 JO-WILFRIED TSONGA (2008 Australian Open runner-up) and No. 13 GAEL MONFILS (French Open semifinalist). France also boasts 11 women in the top 100, including No. 15 ALIZE CORNET, who won her first title in a breakthrough 2008. Suddenly, the French program is the envy of countries looking to recapture lost tennis glory. Anyone know a country like that?

MISSING LINK

Yeah, we'll say it: Andy Murray will win a Slam soon. We know this because we've charted his numbers today against those of four peers when they nabbed their first major. The verdict: The Scot shows well (See the chart at right).

VANISHING ACTS

Tired of buying a ticket to the show only to learn that the stars have pulled up lame, called in sick or fallen off an elephant? You're not alone. Tennis players—men and women—have been incredibly adept at manipulating the system. They cherry-pick events based on money, location or perks. Many pull out of tourneys with "debilitating" injuries. On the plus side, their excuses for late withdrawals are very creative.

The men's side has been fiddling with the rules for years to make players play. But this season, the WTA turns serious by implementing its revamped rule Roadmap. Now the 20 top-tier tournaments—including the Slams, Indian Wells, Miami, Rome and Berlin—are mandatory; skip one and you risk a one-tourney suspension. In addition, the season's been shortened and prize-money pots sweetened, giving players added incentive to show up and actually play. "The big tournaments will be the priorities for me," says No. 1 Jelena Jankovic. "The best players want to play where all the other top players will be."

Top players at the top tourneys? Now there's promotion even P.T. Barnum could love.

CALENDAR

A random sampling of non-major but not-minor court dates. Now you have no excuses.

FEB. 9 Open GDF Suez begins. Finally, WTA coaches are permitted to dole out midmatch advice—although they must be miked for courtside and TV broadcast.

MARCH 2 Venus, Jelena, Ana and Serena battle in the Big Apple for the Billie Jean King Cup: one-set semis, three-set final for $1.2 million. Not a bad night on the town.

MAY 9 The Madrid Open joins a growing list of coed events to feature glittering fields plus huge—and equal—prize money ($4.5 million for men and women).

NOV. 22 Cheerio to the men's season from futuristic The 02 arena—this marks the ATP Tour's first season-ending stop in London.