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Federer captures third straight U.S. Open title

9/11/2006 - Tennis

NEW YORK -- This U.S. Open was all about the greats of the game, from Andre Agassi's tearful farewell, to the renaming of the site to honor Billie Jean King, to Martina Navratilova's this-time-she-means-it retirement.

It was only fitting, then, that the tournament's final point was won by Roger Federer.

After all, by beating Andy Roddick 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1 Sunday for a third consecutive championship at Flushing Meadows, Federer took another step toward being regarded as the best tennis player in history.

With his new pal Tiger Woods sitting in the front row, Federer won his third Grand Slam title of the year and the ninth of his career, moving closer to Pete Sampras' record of 14. After the match, Federer and Woods cracked open two bottles of Dom Perignon in the locker room.

"I'm shocked myself how well it's been going the last three, four years," Federer said, "being not only compared to former great tennis players, but now especially also other great athletes all over sports, it's just really nice."

If there's any athlete in the world who knows exactly how Federer feels as he dominates his peers and gobbles up Grand Slams, it's Woods. They met for the first time before the match, and Federer then set out to impress his counterpart. Federer out-aced the big-serving Roddick 17-7, compiled a 69-33 edge in winners, and made only 19 unforced errors.

"When I go out there and I see Tiger sitting there, it's like, I try to play well, you know? I try to kind of get my act together and focus and get off to a good start," Federer said.

And he did precisely that, racing to a 5-0 lead in 17 minutes. He finished strong, too, winning eight of the last nine games against Roddick, who won the 2003 U.S. Open but is 1-11 against the man he once was supposed to rival for supremacy in this sport.

"Roger is at the top, and he's the only person at the top, regardless of how much people want to make rivalry comparisons and this, that and the other," Roddick said. "He's the best player in the game. There's no question in my mind."

The No. 1-ranked Federer went 27-1 at this year's Grand Slam tournaments, the only setback coming against Rafael Nadal in the French Open final. Federer became the first man since Ivan Lendl in 1985-87 to win three consecutive U.S. Open titles -- and the only man in tennis history to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open back-to-back three years in a row.

He's won nine of the past 14 Grand Slam tournaments, dating to Wimbledon in 2003.

"I've been on a roll since '04, and of course I am surprised how well it went, but at the same time I know I've given myself the best possible chance," Federer said. "In the end, maybe I'm not that surprised, because the hard work is paying off."

Federer spoke last week about wanting to get to know Woods. It finally happened Sunday, thanks to their shared management agency.

Woods and Federer have much in common. Both successfully hit shots none of their foes would try, and they're at their best when it matters most: Federer is 9-for-10 in major finals; the closest equivalent in tennis to Woods' 12-0 mark when leading going into the last round of a major.

"More and more often, over the last year or so, I've been kind of compared to Tiger -- what he's doing on the golf tour, me doing on the tennis tour," Federer said. "I asked him how it was for him. Many things were similar. He knew exactly how I kind of felt out on the court. That's something that I haven't felt before: A guy who knows how it feels to feel invincible at times and when you just have the feeling like there's nothing going wrong anymore."

Woods and his wife sat between Federer's girlfriend and his agent. It's interesting to note who wasn't in that section: Federer's coach, Tony Roche, who prepares his pupil for this event but doesn't travel to it.

"Roger is at the top, and he's the only person at the top, regardless of how much people want to make rivalry comparisons and this, that and the other. He's the best player in the game. There's no question in my mind."
-- Andy Roddick

Roddick's new adviser -- they're avoiding the word "coach" -- is none other than five-time Open champion Jimmy Connors, of course. Connors chewed on his fingers when Roddick was having a hard time, and rocked back giddily after his charge's nice shots.

"He played like a man tonight, win, lose or draw," Connors said. "I'm so encouraged by the kid. I'm proud of him."

Connors has rebuilt Roddick's confidence and revamped his game, but Federer was able to come up with all of the answers, particularly in the tensest moments.

Critical tests of will and nerve came early in the third set: Federer faced four break points but saved them all to hold for a 3-2 lead, and Roddick then successfully dealt with five break points in the very next game to make it 3-all.

"We were pretty much fighting tooth and nail," Roddick said.

But then, serving to take that set to a tiebreaker, Roddick faltered. Or better, Federer flourished, using two backhand return winners to break serve. Federer let out a shout of "Yes!" -- about the only ounce of emotion he showed until falling to his back at the very end.

Overall, Federer broke six times; Roddick lost his serve a total of five times in the tournament's first six rounds combined.

Federer was beyond brilliant at the start, using a mix of well-spun aces, curling passing shots, crisp volleys and reflex returns of Roddick's serves topping 135 mph.

When Federer hit his fourth ace at 131 mph to cap that opening five-game run, Roddick bowed his head and shook it.

"You don't want to get embarrassed out there, that's for sure," Roddick would say later.

Shortly thereafter, the first set was done. Federer hit a cross-court backhand passing shot that dipped as though attached to a string, and then he broke for the third time by getting back a 142 mph serve with a return so tough Roddick meekly slapped a forehand into the net.

And then, suddenly, Roddick got back into the match, breaking Federer at love to open the second set and running to the sideline with an uppercut and a yell.

The book on Roddick has been that his game is limited to two power strokes, his serve and his forehand. But in the past couple of months with Connors, the repertoire has expanded, and Roddick held his own in the second set and most of the third.

On one point, Roddick reached for a half-volley to extend the exchange, and then, with both players at the net, hit a reflex volley winner.

After speaking about the changes to his own game, Roddick was asked about whether Federer is better than when he beat Roddick in the 2004 and 2005 Wimbledon finals.

"He's improving as well," Roddick said, "which is scary."