Commentary

Federer facing ever-growing challenges

Updated: December 1, 2009, 1:35 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

It has been an emotional year for Roger Federer.

He wept after losing a five-set final to Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open. There was the angry racket-cracking episode in Miami during a semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic and a seven-month span without a title. And then, in a cathartic swirl of less than two months, Federer won the one major that had eluded him, the French Open; triumphed over Andy Roddick in a fifth set at Wimbledon that required a breathtaking 30 games, breaking Pete Sampras' all-time record for Grand Slam singles titles; and witnessed the birth of twin daughters.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
AP Photo/Andrew BrownbillAn Australian Open finals appearance would be a career-maker for some players, but it represented a low point for Roger Federer in 2009.

No wonder Federer exuded such an air of serenity in London last week at the year-end championships when he officially finished as the tour's No. 1-ranked player for the fifth time. He wore a regal smile and a stylish tie-and-sweater ensemble as he clasped the glass trophy symbolic of the No. 1 ranking.

"It means a lot to have returned to No. 1," Federer said. "It was an incredible year for me, both on the court and off. To be able to break the all-time Grand Slam record and finish the year on top is amazing."

Amazing -- a ubiquitous word in sports today -- might be an understatement. For in a year when Andre Agassi's tell-too-much book generated headlines for weeks, at the end of the day, Federer is the story. Again.

At the age of 28, he became only the second player in ATP rankings history to finish the season on top after losing it for one year. Ivan Lendl, No. 1 from 1985-87, relinquished the spot to Mats Wilander in 1988, then reclaimed it in 1989.

"I don't think of it as that big of an accomplishment," Lendl said on Monday, "but I guess when you look at only Roger and I doing it, maybe there's something to it. Usually, if you get passed at No. 1, it's because somebody has gotten better than you. It's not that easy to reverse the process.

"But if you look at Rafa, you can say that injury is why he lost No. 1. That's a part of the game. I think there's a good chance he'll be No. 1 again."

Injury was also a factor in Lendl's fall and subsequent rise. While Wilander won three of four majors in 1988, Lendl was limited by a serious shoulder injury. He didn't play for two months after the U.S. Open and eventually underwent surgery to repair the damage. In 1989, Lendl won 79 of 86 matches and 10 titles, including the Australian Open, and held No. 1 for 80 consecutive weeks.

A year ago, Nadal looked invincible. For 46 weeks, he was No. 1. Now he's No. 2 again and some wonder if his ravaged knees -- not to mention his bruised psyche in the wake of his parents' separation -- will allow him to put together another year like 2008, when he won his fourth consecutive French Open title and, for the first time, Wimbledon.

Federer has now been No. 1 for 259 weeks, trailing only Sampras (286), Lendl (270) and Jimmy Connors (268) on the all-time list. If Federer manages to stay No. 1 through next year's Australian Open, he would pass Connors on Feb. 8.

By comparison, on the women's side, Serena Williams will have been No. 1 for only 83 weeks when 2009 comes to a close. In 2010, Justine Henin will lead all active women with 117 weeks on top, followed by Dinara Safina (26 weeks), Kim Clijsters (19) and Maria Sharapova (17).

Consider these additional, exceptional numbers:

• Federer became only the sixth man to achieve a career Grand Slam, defeating Robin Soderling at Roland Garros.
• He reached the finals of all four Grand Slam events, becoming the first man to do so in three different years.
• He has now won 15 of the past 26 major titles and has reached 22 consecutive semifinals.

"The stars aligned for him pretty good this year, and he took advantage of it," Lendl said. "That's the sign of a champion. When the opportunities came, at the French and at Wimbledon, he took advantage of them. But at the Australian and U.S. Open, he didn't. That was very disappointing.

"In my opinion, he easily could have won the Grand Slam. Roger may agree or disagree, but his game has not been as good as in years past. It would have been ironic if he had won the Grand Slam playing at less than his best, but well-deserved."

Technically, Nadal had a microscopic chance to reassume the No. 1 spot at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. But Rafa lost all three of his round-robin matches and Federer won the first two to clinch. It was not terribly surprising that, mission accomplished, Federer fell to Juan Martin del Potro and, in the semifinals, to eventual champion Nikolay Davydenko. It is instructive that the 28-year-old Russian defeated all three reigning Grand Slam champions on his way to the year-end title. Davydenko -- who has reached four major semifinals but never a final -- had more to play for, and he jumped over Roddick in the rankings, to No. 6.

Federer, as Lendl noted, has lost a few miles per hour off his fastball. His nerves are not as steady as they used to be, but, of course, this is the natural order of things. Compare his last three seasons at No. 1 and you'll find his titles and winning percentage have steadily declined. Still, you have to appreciate his consistent success.

In 2004, when Federer first finished No. 1, Roddick was No. 2. The rest of the top 10, in order, looked like this: Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, Carlos Moya, Tim Henman, Guillermo Coria, Andre Agassi, David Nalbandian and Gaston Gaudio.

Of those eight players, Hewitt was the only one ranked in the top 50 this year. Yes, it's hard to stay near the top of the game -- much less at the top.

Lendl, for one, is excited about 2010.

"I think the playing field is going to level at the Australian," he said.

Djokovic, Lendl added, seems to have figured out how to win with his new racket. Del Potro is making great strides. Murray appears poised for a Grand Slam breakthrough. Nadal has a lot to prove.

"And then we'll see where Roger fits into all of this," Lendl said. "As you get older, your skills diminish and the guys catch up with you. Your priorities change and majors are what you care about the most. Your motivation in between is not that high.

"I think you might see four different winners in the Grand Slams. It will be fascinating to watch."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.