Federer is in a class by himself

Roger Federer has a chance to be one of the all-time greats, writes Greg Garber.

Updated: July 6, 2004, 1:15 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- During this damp but enlightening fortnight at the All England Club, the superlatives have been lavished upon Roger Federer.

Martina Navratilova said she would pay to watch Roger Federer play.

Goran Ivanisevic called him the most talented player he has ever seen. Serena Williams used the word "unbelievable." John McEnroe conceded that Federer might well win more than McEnroe's seven Grand Slam singles titles. Martina Navratilova said she would pay to see him play.

No less an authority than Andy Roddick observed, "He hits shots that a lot of people wouldn't even think of hitting, and it seems he's immune to pressure right now."

In a match between the two best players in the world, Federer was not at his best on Sunday -- although Roddick was a major factor in that.

Federer's serve was not as precise as usual and his ground strokes were sluggish. Through the first two-and-one-half sets, Federer was not particularly aggressive. But although the championship score -- 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (3), 6-4 -- was much closer than last year's straight-sets semifinal, the 22-year-old Swiss player was again too good on Centre Court.

"All is not lost because I lost today," Roddick said. "You know, I still had a hell of a run. I proved that Roger is not invincible -- he's pretty close.

"It was a couple of points here and there. We kill that term, but today it really was."

Federer, who during a second rain break made a conscious decision to come to net more after he was down a service break in the third set, won his third Grand Slam title in the last five contested.

"This is when the sunshine came at the same time," Federer said. "I'm happy I had such a great reaction."

The world's No. 1-ranked player has now beaten the No. 2 player six of seven times. Over his brief career, Federer has a history of mediocrity when he loses the first set. Previously, he had lost all three of his matches at Wimbledon in which he had lost the first set.

Roddick supporters will point to the encouraging evolution of his game, his tender age of 21 and the distinct prospect of a second consecutive U.S. Open title. In fairness, Roddick had numerous chances to take control of the match, particularly in the fourth set, but he didn't do it.

Federer, clearly, is in a class by himself.

As Roddick said during the trophy presentation, "I'm going to have to start winning some of them to call it a rivalry."

Roddick said it with a smile, but later, in his post-match press conference, he said, "I wasn't joking."

So if Roddick can't beat Federer, who can? Marat Safin? Juan Carlos Ferrero? More likely, it will be someone currently in the junior ranks, maybe 18-year-old Spaniard Rafael Nadal or 14-year-old Donald Young of the United States.

How many Grand Slam singles titles will Federer win? Is he Pete Sampras, can he match his record total of 14? Or is he Andre Agassi, who has won a more modest eight majors? Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus?

It is impossible to know, but the graceful Swiss player will be part of the Grand Slam dialogue for many, many years. He has so distanced himself from his peers that history is already his only yardstick.

Federer became the first man to defend his title here since Sampras in 2000. Is it merely a coincidence that it was a 19-year-old Federer who ended Sampras' 31-match winning streak at Wimbledon the following year? Federer is the first man since Agassi in 1999 to win two Grand Slam titles in a calendar year. More remarkably, he is only the fourth man in 36 years of Open tennis to win his first three Grand Slam finals. Jimmy Connors, Stefan Edberg and the great Bjorn Borg were the others. Federer has now won 24 consecutive matches on grass, the second-highest total ever in the Open Era. Is it unthinkable to imagine Federer approaching Borg's record of 41 straight, achieved here at Wimbledon with five straight titles from1976-81?

"It's always been like this since I've played juniors," Federer said. "If I get to the finals, you know, I just don't want to lose them. I do not accept.

"This is why for me in the beginning of my career it was very difficult to actually get to know defeat in the finals, because I had a bad record. Since now, quite a long period of time, I've been winning a lot of the finals."

Indeed, Federer is tennis' consummate closer; Wimbledon was his eight straight victory in a final.

Before the match, Roddick allowed "The one advantage I have over him is just hitting the crap out of the ball," but there was more to his Fourth of July game than sheer pace.

While he came in with an all-or-nothing mentality, Roddick actually advanced to net (even after second serves) and hit some pretty one-hand slices. This was a departure from his moored-to-the-baseline approach in last year's semifinal. Federer said he was surprised at how consistent Roddick's backhand was and said it didn't allow him to run around his backhand.

Roddick held a 4-2 lead in the third set when a second rain delay sent them off the court. After a 40-minute pause, Federer looked like a new man. He made the critical decision to serve and volley more often, and it worked. Federer broke back to level the match at 4-all and rose to a new level in the tiebreaker.

Federer's first two serves were aces, and it was 3-2 when Roddick lost his serve trying to hit a forehand too close to the line. On Roddick's next serve, Federer hit one of his signature backhands, a lovely cross-court stroke that hooked sharply past a flat-footed Roddick at net. Federer seized control of the match with another backhand pass.

The fourth set is the one that will eat at Roddick for quite some time. He had six break points against Federer and any one of them might have led to a fifth set. But Federer was stronger in the crucial moments.

"I felt like I had one bad point," Roddick said. "He came up with some great serves. I flagged a backhand, which I haven't done for almost the whole match. Besides that, he came up with the goods. I can only regret one of those."

Federer broke Roddick seventh game and served out the match with flair, ending it with an ace.

Roddick said he would be back, and his progression from semifinal to final suggests he will win here one day. He acquitted himself well in his first Wimbledon final and his record here is a still-sporty 15-4.

"Losses like this inspire me more," Roddick said. "I feel like I'm on the right track. I got one match better than I did last year. Hopefully, that's a precedent.

"I came up short. Maybe next time, I won't."

Federer's stylish strokes obscure the mental toughness that he has brought to his game over the last year.

"Seems like I can get my act together at the right time." Federer said. "I knew my only chance to win was to stay calm. For me, winners stay and losers go.

"I don't want to be one of them who goes."

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.