Federer unbeatable right now
NEW YORK -- For a slender moment, there seemed to be an opening.
Lleyton Hewitt, the scrappy Australian, had his first break point of the match and Roger Federer looked vulnerable. And then, with a suave grace that belies his power, Federer summoned three consecutive aces -- all on the line.
Perhaps more telling: This was the 124th U.S. Open men's final, but Federer was the first straight-sets champion to win two sets at love.
"When he's playing like he did, especially in the first set there today," Hewitt said, "there's very little you can do out there."
"To me, even in my wildest dreams, I never would have thought I could win the U.S. Open," Federer said. "I couldn't have hoped for more, really."
Seriously, this is starting to get ridiculous.
In tennis, when a player makes a terrific shot, they say "Too good." This year, Federer has been too great. There were times when it looked like Federer was playing with Hewitt, in an effort to amuse himself.
Federer, 23, thus becomes the first man to win three Grand Slams in a single season since 1988, when Mats Wilander failed only at Wimbledon.
Wilander watched the match, every point, at his home in Hailey, Idaho.
"I have to say Roger Federer is -- we can't imagine how good he is," Wilander told ESPN.com five minutes after the match. "Dominant, that's pretty much as dominant as you will ever see. The guy is just one step ahead of everybody."
Wilander, who last week predicted that Federer would win three Slams in a season -- but not this year -- said he was happy for him.
"Why not? This is the most times my name has been mentioned on TV since I won it in '88," Wilander said. "Records are made to be broken. It's nice to see someone so complete as Federer.
Federer also became the first man in the Open Era to win his first four Grand Slam finals -- a feat that suggests almost limitless possibilities.
"Actually, honestly, going into this final," Federer said, "I had kind of a strange feeling. Because of all the talk: nobody has ever won four in a row, the first Grand Slam. So I started wondering. Now that I did it, it's great.
"It's still tough to believe, because I think once I settle down, have some time off, at the end of the year especially, I'll be looking back, thinking, 'How in the world did I do all this?' "
At this early stage of the curve, the answer is maybe.
"He's similar to Pete, and he's going to get better every point he plays," Wilander said. "Does he win, maybe 15 or maybe 13?
"But at the same time, Serena Williams won four in row. Justine Henin-Hardenne won, what, three out of five? And then what? We think these guys are not going to lose. You don't know what's ahead. I don't think it's impossible. He'll have to work harder to win his next three Slams than he did for his last three.
"He's got a bigger chance than anyone else."
Let's do the math: Sampras lost his second Grand Slam final (the 1992 U.S. Open), but only three after that. He won his fourth Grand Slam (the 1994 Australian Open) at the age of 22 years, four months -- nine months younger than Federer. But Sampras played in an extremely competitive era that featured Andre Agassi (eight Grand Slam titles), Edberg (six) and Gustavo Kuerten (three). Does Federer have two contemporaries who will win six Slams? Since Federer has won seven of eight matches against No. 2-ranked Andy Roddick, it's possible that Federer's next great rival is still playing in juniors. That gives him some time to clean up.
"You're witnessing someone," intoned CBS analyst John McEnroe, "who may go down in history as the greatest player who ever lived."
Hewitt was asked if anyone could have done better than he did against Federer.
"I don't think anyone in the actual tournament," Hewitt said. "I don't know, maybe Pete Sampras."
"There's still many guys ahead of me, not just Sampras," Federer said. "It's not a goal for me to beat his record. That only came into play when he was trying to beat Emerson's record [of 12]. For me, this is not motivation. This would just kill me."
Federer's Grand Slam season ends with a 23-1 match record. His overall mark is 64-6 and this was his ninth title. He has now won 17 straight matches against players ranked in the top 10. He has now won 11 consecutive finals.
In the final analysis, Federer plays even bigger in the big points. It's almost hard to remember that Federer's best previous effort here was advancing to the fourth round.
In the wake of his one-hour and 51-minute clinic, one could also easily forget that Hewitt was the hottest player in the men's game coming into the fortnight at the National Tennis Center. Hewitt, also 23, was the No. 1-ranked player in 2001 and 2002 and had won both of his previous Grand Slam finals.
The Australian had won 16 straight matches -- including six here without dropping a set -- and also held an 8-5 career mark against Federer. Now, he has now lost four straight, including three this year in Grand Slams.
At the outset, it looked like Federer would disappear in a hurry. He won the first set at love -- in 18 minutes. He won the first eight games overall and rode a 14-point streak. In the second set, though, Federer's form -- and his serve -- cooled appreciably.
Hewitt, who had been getting closer and closer to Federer's serve, finally cashed one in with Federer serving for the second set at 5-4. Federer's backhand was wide and, two games later, they were locked in a pivotal tie-breaker.
Federer, naturally, won easily. When Hewitt sent a weak backhand into the net, Federer had a two-set lead. The third set was no lo contendre. Federer had an amazing (for him) 20 unforced errors in the second set and was broken for the only time, but still managed to win. How good was Federer in the first and last sets? He had a total of six unforced errors.
When Hewitt walked around the net to congratulate Federer, he told him, "Right on, mate. Incredible year." Jack Kramer, who won three Grand Slam titles, including the U.S. Open in 1946 and 1947, likes what he sees.
"Roger is the complete package," Kramer said before Sunday's match. "He'll only get better and he'll bring everybody else along. Because if he sets the standard, you've got to play against him -- the idea of how good you have to be -- you've got to beat Roger to be No. 1. It's a great thing."
Margaret Smith Court has won more combined Grand Slam titles (62) than anyone. She sees the Swiss player as a throwback.
"Federer, I feel, is probably more back to our era, the style of play," Smith Court said. "I think he's so good all-around, and he's got all the strokes. I mean, he can be aggressive if he wants to. He can chip. He can topspin. He can do anything."
"Let's hope Roger doesn't get satisfied if he continues to win and gets too wealthy that he doesn't have the extra incentive to go out there and play," Kramer said. "A champion of his stature, the game needs him, and he's 23 now. Let's hope he has the same drive that Sampras had for so long."
Federer looks like a champion and talks like one, too. He has the strokes -- and the disposition -- to endure. Can he become the greatest player of all time?
"Obviously, that would be nice," Federer said. "Don't forget, there is a lot of hard work you have to put into it, a lot of sacrifice. So, I'm still all the way in the beginning.
"I hope I can keep it up as long as I can. Once I get sick and tired of everything, you never know when that day will come. Obviously, I'm enjoying my life. Traveling the world, being No. 1 in the world in tennis is not too bad.
"I want to stay just a little bit longer."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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