If anyone can win four, it's Federer
No. 1 Roger Federer is making his opponents look like, well, girls.
That's because his matches these days are as short as an early round on the women's side -- often lasting an hour or less. So much so he genuinely sounded excited at the possibility of playing No. 2 Andy Roddick in a tuneup event.
Federer won all of the majors except the French Open last season to finish with a 23-1 record in the Slams. The only man who managed to beat him at the majors last year was three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten -- on Roland Garros' clay. He finished the year with a winning percentage of .925 (tying Ivan Lendl in 1986). In the previous 20 years, only John McEnroe in 1984 had a higher percentage -- and McEnroe won only two of the Grand Slam tournaments that year.
In other words, there's Roger Federer and then there's everyone else. As the Australian Open gets under way, there's one question waiting to be answered: Can he win all four?
"I was asked this question after Australia (2004)," Federer said after winning the U.S. Open. "Everybody got a little bit quiet after the French, which is normal, you know. But, no, every one I win is incredible. So I'm happy to win one next year, you know, so let's just put it this way."
It's not easy to win even three. Federer's only the fourth man since the Open Era began in 1968 to take three titles. The last man besides Federer to win three was Mats Wilander in 1988. Men's tennis is deep and diverse today. Players don't specialize as much in one surface and are more dangerous.
Four is even more difficult. The last man to do so just happens to be an Aussie -- Rod Laver. He managed to win all four majors twice but that was in the 1960s. There's only one man who has won on each of the surfaces currently played upon: Andre Agassi. But that's over a career -- not in a calendar year.
When asked once last year whether he enjoyed watching Federer play, Agassi replied: "It depends who his opponent is because, you know, most of the time he's making it look too easy to enjoy. ... Federer's one of those guys that just plays the game on his own terms in a way that others just can't. That's his style, and it's very unique."
"I have to say Roger Federer is -- we can't imagine how good he is," Wilander told ESPN.com after Federer won the U.S. Open last year. "Dominant, that's pretty much as dominant as you will ever see. The guy is just one step ahead of everybody."
Federer is capable of winning on every surface -- although faster courts fit his game best. Last year he was the first player to win multiple titles on grass, clay and hard courts in a season.
"I've really proven it's been all surfaces, everywhere in the world, you know, that I can win the title," Federer said in November. "I think that makes it very special, this whole year because the season I've had, and I've basically won on all continents."
He's quite a coach, too. Federer took a lot of heat early in 2004 for not having a coach. He didn't need one to rack up an 18-0 record against top 10 opponents. He didn't need one to finish the year with a 74-6 record. Federer has hired Tony Roche as a part-time coach for this year. Federer said he needs help improving his game -- or more likely, as some have speculated, he needs help setting goals after achieving so much. Still, after Federer won his second consecutive Masters Cup last fall, he said he didn't plan to focus on winning the Slam missing from his collection.
"It won't be my first priority," Federer said. "My priority is to defend my Wimbledon crown and to maintain my No. 1 ranking. That's what I'm aiming for."
Federer once described tennis as artistic and athletic. It's an appropriate description of his game. His hard work on court looks effortless. In his well-rounded game, his backhand is deemed his "weakest shot" -- if you can hit to it.
"When he's on fire with his forehand, it's very hard to get it to his backhand too often, as well," Lleyton Hewitt said after losing to Federer at the U.S. Open.
And don't expect the other players to sit around waiting to be beat.
"To finish No. 1 and the way he did it is an incredible effort," Agassi said this week in Kooyong, "but it's also sort of now become the standard that everybody is trying to push for, and I'm always thankful for those that make us better and Roger definitely does that."
"There's no doubt about that ... he's taken it to another level," Hewitt said. "You know, that's what drives especially I'm sure a guy like Andre, you know, and I know myself, and I'm sure Safin and Roddick and these guys, as well. Because you want to keep -- we've been at the top for a period of time; Andre has obviously been there for an extremely long time. He still believes that he's good enough to stay up there and compete with the best guys in the world, and I think we all do. That's what drives you."
What drives Federer is the opportunity to be a role model. Well-liked on the Tour even by the guys he's beating, Federer says being a superstar is OK, but he'd rather be someone who is looked up to.
"Honestly, I like to be an idol for kids; it means a lot to me," Federer said after the U.S. Open. "Maybe other people or persons or players, whatever, they think, you know, all that's important to me is I'm having a good life, friends and family are happy. To me, it's important, too. But it's also important to represent the sport correctly and, you know, for kids to be an idol. ... I like to be a superstar, it's okay."
"He's very down to earth," Hewitt told Britain's The Independent. "I think that's probably the best quality he has. He's very easy to get along with. I always say 'G'day' to him, have a chat."
Despite an incredible year, Federer remembers the losses: "There's only a few, I can quickly run through them, so that's nice. Like (Rafael) Nadal (in Miami), and he played fantastic and I was still sick. (Tim) Henman played fantastic, as well, in Rotterdam. (Tomas) Berdych surprised me maybe a little bit at the Olympics. You know, Guga at the French, he was just a better player, as simple as that. Where else did I lose? (Dominik) Hrbaty in Cincinnati, yeah, not so easy. I should have won that match but lost it. So I had, yeah, a fantastic season."
Federer thinks it is too soon to consider greatness. He knows that an injury could easily take him out of the running.
"Obviously it would be nice, but the road is long, you know," Federer said. "Don't forget. There's a lot of hard work you have to put into it, you know, a lot of sacrifice. So I'm still all the way in the beginning."
Hewitt suggested this week that a major obstacle for Federer at the year's first major will be expectations.
"I think it's going to need a good player to beat me at the Aussie Open, but only time will tell if he is right or wrong," Federer said in Kooyong this week.
Only time will tell about the rest of the majors -- whether one, two, three or four. First, he has to defend his Australian Open title.
Cynthia Faulkner is the tennis editor for ESPN.com.
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