Composed Federer steadfast for more
The names at the top of the ATP rankings are familiar, but in some ways, this Australian Open represents uncharted territory for those players. No. 2 Rafael Nadal will be defending a title few thought he would win a year ago, while No. 1 Roger Federer faces the task of staying motivated when most would argue he has little left to prove.
What do you give the man who has everything? Federer would like all of us to give him the benefit of the doubt when he says that he won't lose his interest or his drive just because he has checked off the most elusive items on his career checklist, a record 15th Grand Slam title and a French Open victory.
By asserting that he wants to keep competing, not just this season but for several more, Federer is swimming against what seem like inexorable tides.
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There is his age -- 28 -- and the historical reality that major championships generally taper off when men hit their late 20s. There is the passage that any of us, athlete or not, can recognize as a challenge to single-minded focus: fatherhood, times two in Federer's case. There is wealth, in the form of several long-term endorsement deals that guarantee financial security no matter how he does on the court. Finally, most intangibly, there is the difficulty of goal-setting when Federer has accomplished his most cherished missions by setting the Slam record and earning a career Slam in the same season.
Former No. 1-turned-commentator John McEnroe said Federer has a shot at going where no man has gone before for one simple reason: From the outside, at least, Federer appears to have a remarkably low anxiety level about what's next.
"He doesn't have the angst about it, when it starts to weigh on you and you feel like you're not able to enjoy the positives,'' McEnroe said in December before playing in broadcast colleague Pam Shriver's annual exhibition event in Baltimore. "That type of attitude is pretty tremendous.
"If anyone can do it, it'd be him. He seems to actually love to play. He doesn't seem to be distracted by other things or caught up in the hoopla. He doesn't get sidetracked very much. But he's a human being. Or at least I think he's human. Sometimes I wonder, because of what he's done. It has to catch up to you. I think you saw that in the fifth set of the [U.S.] Open. But it took a long time.''
Until Federer lost the fourth-set tiebreaker to eventual winner Juan Martin del Potro in New York, McEnroe said he was convinced Federer was going to pull out his 16th Slam victory.
"I think he'll win a few more, because he's so great, but other guys are going to get a share, too."
There are still targets left for Federer to shoot out of the sky. One, a Davis Cup championship, doesn't seem to interest him. Another, the Olympic singles title, clearly does. And there remains one more Pete Sampras mark to equal or surpass: the Californian's Open-era record of six year-end No. 1 finishes.
Could it be that, liberated from the tyranny of major milestones, Federer will find another, more relaxed gear in which he can be just as dangerous? Is it possible that he burns within to set standards that will quash any continuation of the endless, pointless Greatest Player of All Time debate? Check back next December. No one has ever tried this. And as for that gift Federer has requested -- that we stay in our seats for his encore -- he deserves it.
From 2005 through 2008, Nadal's campaigns had a certain similarity.
He played his guts out on clay, winning the French Open and just about everything else on the surface. He improved on grass, culminating with his brilliant 2008 dethroning of Federer in the Wimbledon final. He won a hard-court tournament here and there.
By the time the U.S. Open rolled around each year, Nadalologists knew their man would be largely spent, battling the aches and pains that are a byproduct of his physically punishing style, and hard-pressed to play his best. Although he made the '08 semifinals in Melbourne and New York, there were those who felt Nadal wouldn't win a hard-court major unless he radically altered his schedule and priorities.
Then came Federer's fifth-set collapse in Australia and one of the most riveting, if uncomfortable, trophy ceremonies in modern tennis history. Nadal rejoiced. Federer wept. Nadal threw a comforting arm around him. Prognosticators declared a shift in The Force. It was hard to argue the point, and impossible to see the next twist in the road.
Nadal had his offseason in midseason last year, leaving the tour for two months after Robin Soderling upended him at Roland Garros. The break was physically necessary to allow his knees to heal, and perhaps emotionally fortuitous as well, as Nadal adjusted to the new reality of his parents' breakup.
Upon his return in August, Nadal warmed up in Montreal and then proceeded to make the semis or better of every tournament he played -- including the U.S. Open -- until the ATP year-end finals, where he lost three straight matches. Nadal wasn't done, though. He played through the first week of December, leading Spain to a successful defense of its Davis Cup title.
Then -- in an eyeblink -- he was flying to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to play in an elite exhibition event, which he won, and then on to Doha, Qatar, where he cruised to the final before losing to Nikolay Davydenko.
Commentator and former pro Justin Gimelstob thinks Nadal emerged from his roller-coaster year with momentum -- but also with an increasing awareness of what he needs to do to ensure he has a long career.
"It was a plus playing on the clay at Davis Cup and getting the emotional and physical confidence and finding his timing and finishing the year on a positive," Gimelstob said. "I wouldn't be surprised if this year you see him start managing his schedule, playing less, trying to take the pressure off his body, thinking more long-term. He needs to monitor the number of matches he plays. By virtue of how great he is, when he plays tournaments, he goes really far in them.
"The pattern of his points and the pattern of how he feels on the court and how he's playing is definitely where it needs to be.''
A year ago, who would have thought that Nadal wouldn't reach the final of either the French Open or Wimbledon, but would open 2010 as the defending Australian Open champion? Nadal's 2009 season broke his own mold. It'll be fascinating to see how he puts the pieces back together.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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