Federer, the Picture Perfect Tennis Pro
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Hey, the US Open tennis tournament begins in New York on Monday. The top seeds are Maria Sharapova of Russia and Roger Federer of Switzerland, who is also the defending men's champion. Commentator Frank Deford says Federer's game is just about perfect.
The amazing thing about Roger Federer is how many really astute tennis authorities not only speculate that he may well become the greatest player ever to pick up a racket, but that he may already be the prettiest. It's almost as if he is so beautiful upon the court that it would be worth paying to see him play even if he didn't win, which, of course, he does most every time. There is such an effortless quality to his game. He always seems to be in the right place. He glides, never scurries, and his strokes are so clean they seem to have been lifted from a manual, picture-perfect.
Keep in mind that being a champion in any sport doesn't necessarily equate to beauty. The finest players are often by the very nature of their excellence sui generous, which means they are impressionists who create a new model rather than improve on the loveliness that precedes them. Only think Babe Ruth. I never saw Joe DiMaggio play, but from everything I heard about him, he seems to have been the equivalent in center field to what Federer is on the court, all grace and majesty.
The fact that Federer hits an old-fashioned one-handed backhand helps. A two-handed backhand, which most players have used ever since Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert came to glory, can never look so stylish, because the two hands can never achieve the lovely arching reach and extension of just the one. The two-hander jerks; the one-hander flows.
Well, it is good that we have Justine Henin-Hardenne, the fabulous little Belgian champion around, because she hits a backhand for the angels, that reminds us that Federer is still short of perfection. And, of course, although he utterly dominates on the hard courts and grass, he is still vulnerable on clay to the very best dirt specialists. But it will take an opponent playing well beyond his usual talents to deny Federer a repeat championship at the US Open, which would be his sixth Grand Slam title.
Pete Sampras just set the record with 13. He should keep it for, oh, another four or five years. And if anyone can beat Federer, it must be done before the finals. As they say of him, never on a Sunday. The last 22 finals that Federer has played, he has won. Victory in 22 straight finals? That's almost beyond comprehension in any sport today.
So come Sunday, September 11th, we should see him jumping the net in victory once again. No, excuse me, strike that. Tennis champions used to jump over the net. Now the men, anyway, all fall down in triumph. It's bizarre. It started with Bjorn Borg, I believe. He would collapse to his knees. No, no, guys, that's not the way to win. All other champions, you rise up in victory. You throw your arms up. You shake your fists to the heavens. You exalt. Basketball players raise their fingers on high, `We're number one.' Football players even find somebody to hoist up on their shoulders. Victory is up, up. Only modern male tennis players act like losers when they win. Federer's the worst of the lot. He tends to fall flat out. Come on, Federer. As gorgeous as you are at everything else, why do you have to take victory lying down?
INSKEEP: The comments of Frank Deford, always standing at Sports Illustrated. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.
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