Federer's year was one for the ages

12/19/2006 - Tennis

Sportsman, er, Player of the Year
He's been world No. 1 since February 2004 and has won 95 percent of his matches over the past three seasons. He captured three Grand Slam events for the second time in three years. Only two men managed to beat Roger Federer this season. His dominance has cranked up all the old arguments, last trotted out when Pete Sampras was at his peak, about whether excellence is boring. Perhaps it should be viewed another way -- it's up to Federer's peers to stop losing to him with such numbing consistency. (We know you're trying, guys.) Of all Federer's admirable traits -- his fluid athleticism, tactics, mental toughness, disarming directness and humanitarian efforts -- perhaps the most impressive is his ability to stay motivated. He rarely plays down to lesser opponents and obviously gets great satisfaction when he closes out challenging matches. He's like a candidate for public office going door-to-door late on Election Day, scrapping for every vote, when the exit polls say he's going to prevail in a landslide.

The guy who keeps him honest
It's a big shadow to escape, but Rafael Nadal claimed his own moments in the sun this season, defeating Federer in Dubai (on hardcourt!), Monte Carlo, Rome and finally for the French Open title -- one of just two bulls to gore the matador in 2006. Nadal owns a 6-3 career record against Federer. The Spaniard was 26-0 on clay, obliterating Guillermo Vilas' 29-year-old record for consecutive wins on the surface, and takes a 62-match streak on red dirt into 2007. Catch him if you can.

Best season after a comeback season

James Blake followed his heartwarming 2005 campaign with a muscular season in which he won five tournaments and finished as the top-ranked U.S. player at a career-high No. 4. Two of the three finals he lost were to Federer, at Indian Wells and in the ATP year-end championships. Blake has checked off many of his goals but is still looking for a breakthrough performance in a Grand Slam event and better results in Davis Cup play. His recent history shows it would be unwise to bet against him.

Best synergy, athlete/coach category
Andy Roddick's second-half surge, highlighted by his U.S. Open finals appearance, was informed and inspired by fiery Jimmy Connors, whose strongly expressed belief in Roddick is probably as important to this passionate player as the specific advice he's dispensing. Honorary mention goes to Andy Murray and Brad Gilbert, who helped the 19-year-old Scot become …

The only other guy who kept Federer honest
After Murray upended Federer in Cincinnati in August, he said Gilbert "made me believe I could win the match," no small feat these days.

Worst temper tantrum
Murray might have this market cornered. Among his more flagrant outbursts was an expletive-laced exchange with the chair umpire during Great Britain's Davis Cup tie with Serbia and Montenegro in April. (Note: pre-Gilbert.)

Least sportsmanlike postmatch reaction
After losing to Federer at the Australian Open, German Tommy Haas had some rather anatomically graphic, less-than-complimentary things to say about commentator Jim Courier's positive comments about Federer. Courier said he had nothing to apologize for, and added, "Tennis players say things when they lose matches that they don't really mean."

Worst hat
Vince Spadea's baseball cap sporting what appeared to be an "S" in home-applied glitter and glue, worn at the U.S. Open.

Best quote by a guy in a bad hat
Spadea's ad-libbed reply to what he would rhyme with "Federer" in one of his self-penned raps: "He's a predator."

Wildest rankings ride
Russia's Marat Safin began the season at No. 12 before plummeting out of the top 100 by virtue of several miserable first-round exits. He then clawed his way back to No. 26 with strong showings at the U.S. Open, Madrid and his native Moscow, where he advanced to his first final in more than a year against fellow citizen Nikolay Davydenko. Safin's play also was a key factor in Russia's Davis Cup championship.

Best match
The size of the stage, the moment in time, the hobbled protagonists representing two generations, the drama and the result made Andre Agassi's five-set second-round victory over Marcos Baghdatis at the U.S. Open the most riveting match of the year. Yes, the level of tennis varied and the late going was marred by Baghdatis' frequent cramping. Yet even Federer, who had a match the next morning, admitted he couldn't turn off the television in his hotel room and peered nervously over the edge of his blanket until the final ball was struck at 12:45 a.m. The win set up Agassi's sun-drenched, tearful Labor Day weekend sendoff loss to Benjamin Becker before a rapturous sellout crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Best shot
Try as we might, the answers all come up Federer, whose skill at defending makes as much of a difference as his offense. Two shots at the U.S. Open come to mind: his no-look, between-the-legs return of a Tim Henman volley to his feet just inside the baseline that set up a soft reply from the understandably astounded Brit and an eventual backhand winner, and his backhand block of what looked like a slam-dunk Blake overhead smash.

Biggest upset in a Grand Slam event
Then-No. 6 Davydenko's first-round loss to Colombia's 127th-ranked Alejandro Falla at Wimbledon. Davydenko hasn't made it past the second round at Wimbledon in five tries. Honorable mention: first-round ouster of then-No. 3 Ivan Ljubicic by 77th-ranked Spaniard Feliciano Lopez at the U.S. Open.

Most poignant upset
Nadal's loss to his one-time idol, Spanish veteran Carlos Moya, in the second round at Miami.

Best use of junk food in postmatch comments
"I used to, like, hit for a half hour and then go eat Cheetos the rest of the day, come out and drill forehands. Now I'm really trying to make it happen, being professional, really going for it, and I miss my Cheetos."
-- Andy Roddick, after losing to Russia's Igor Andreev in the round of 16 at Indian Wells

Best use of a martyred world leader in postmatch comments
"Yeah, for the most part I was fine today until I just, you know, went mental at the end. That's 5-1, so it's not really going to matter. I mean, I could have, you know, reached Gandhi-like peace of mind and it wouldn't have mattered then."
-- Andy Roddick, at the same news conference

Best use of a beloved animated character in postmatch comments
"Shooting the guy who shot Bambi? I guess it feels better than shooting Bambi."
-- Andy Roddick, after beating Benjamin Becker to advance to the U.S. Open quarterfinals

Think globally, not locally
The clearest sign that loyalty to corporate sponsors has eclipsed national borders came at the U.S. Open final. Tiger Woods, arguably the most prominent active American athlete on the planet, sat in Federer's box rather than a neutral location as Federer defended his title against homeboy Roddick. The locker room was closed to the media (in violation of tournament rules) after Federer's victory so the two Nike icons could celebrate privately.

Best newcomer to the top 20
Baghdatis, the charismatic Cypriot, streaked into the Australian Open final like a meteorite and spent the rest of the year proving he wasn't going to flame out, finishing the season ranked 12th.

Best fashion statement
Blake donned a vintage 1990 black, white and neon pink Agassi ensemble at the U.S. Open in a tribute to Agassi's boundary-pushing influence on tennis attire.

Most-discussed fashion statement
The cream-colored linen blazer Federer wore when he walked on court at Wimbledon was described this way by the British newspaper The Guardian: "The jacket is classically stylish and has a special crest that incorporates a Swiss cross, a tuft of grass, his Leo star sign, an F for his surname and three rackets representing his three Wimbledon titles." Any outfit needing that much interpretation isn't a statement, it's a thesis. Then again, dude has earned the right to wear anything he wants.

Fastest-dissolving family feud
This has to be the spat between top ATP doubles players and tour executives, who patched up their differences and played through the year with no-ad scoring and a match tiebreak in lieu of a third set. In a sign of relative harmony, savedoubles.com -- a Web site set up when the players sued the tour -- was renamed lovedoubles.net.

Persistence award
Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic, who turned pro in 1996, won his first-ever ATP title in Rotterdam this season and made his top 20 debut.

Quietest top 10 newcomer
The winner here is Croatia's Mario Ancic, who might have made more noise had he not injured his knee in a jet-ski accident in midseason.

Quietest final exit
Thomas Enqvist of Sweden bowed out of the game in April. The 32-year-old Enqvist won 19 titles and was an Australian Open finalist in 1999, the same year he reached a career-high No. 4.

Off the radar
Three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten, 30, of Brazil, still hasn't fully recovered from his 2004 hip surgery and played only one ATP-level match this year.

Most publicized flip-flop
Burdened by financial problems, Bjorn Borg announced in March his intention to auction off trophies and rackets from his Wimbledon triumphs but reversed himself several weeks later. Among those who helped talk him out of it was former archrival John McEnroe, who phoned and asked with characteristic tact, "Have you gone completely nuts?"

He can be serious
McEnroe won his first ATP event in 14 years, a doubles title with partner Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden in San Jose, Calif.

Nothing but nets
French tennis-idol-turned-music-idol Yannick Noah found himself in yet another prominent role, this time as a spectator and the proud father of University of Florida center Joachim Noah, who led his team to the NCAA hoops championship.

Best parting words
From, of course, the winner of the Lifetime Achievement for Best Quote, Andre Agassi:
"I think we can find excuses in life or we can find inspirations. I've always tried to find inspirations."
-- Sept. 3, 2006, after playing his final match

Bonnie DeSimone is frequent contributor to ESPN.com.