Tough to touch his mark

Tough to touch his mark

record breaker Fatherhood has not diminished Roger Federer’s enthusiasm one bit.

After lengthening his shadow over tennis, Roger Federer stepped to the microphone last Sunday and said grace, thanking his vanquished opponent in the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters, Novak Djokovic; the tournament organisers; the volunteers; and the fans.
Then he deviated from the timeworn script, thanking his month-old twin daughters, Charlene and Myla, for being such good sports. They arrived more than two weeks early, on July 23, which made it possible for Federer to shift his focus to the summer hardcourt season, which will culminate with the US Open starting next Monday, August 31.

It would have been understandable if Federer had experienced a drop in desire after notching his milestone 15th Grand Slam victory at Wimbledon, then helping his wife, Mirka, welcome the couple's first children into the world. But Federer's drive is greater even than his genius, which is true of relatively few sports superstars, among them Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant, Michael Phelps and Candace Parker.
Federer grinds even when it is not a Grand Slam event. His focus in a summer that has been full of distractions for him, however wonderful, has given the men's game a center that the women's game has lacked.

Federer returned to the ATP Tour in Montreal this month, having lost a little sleep but clearly none of his enthusiasm for chasing tennis balls and titles. He was part of history in Canada, where the top eight men in the world reached the quarterfinals for the first time since the ATP rankings were instituted in 1973. That same week, the final-eight of the WTA Tour stop in Mason, Ohio, did not include either Serena or Venus Williams, who each lost in the third round.
Federer's 6-1, 7-5 victory against Djokovic was his first hardcourt championship of 2009. After a shocking collapse against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals in Montreal, Federer made smooth work of Djokovic, as he had Andy Murray in the semifinals. Some of his shots in the final were so sublime, all Djokovic could do was roll his eyes or clap.

"The closest I was able to get to the first-place trophy is now," he told the CBS reporter Mary Joe Fernandez during the awards presentation.
The top performers on the men's side used these two weeks to solidify their positions, generating headlines heading into the season's last Grand Slam event. But on the women's side, nobody set the tennis world abuzz. After No 4 Jelena Jankovic won in Mason last week, fifth-ranked Elena Dementieva topped in Toronto with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over Maria Sharapova. A former No 1, Sharapova was playing in her first final since she came back in May from shoulder surgery.
Neither Williams sister has won a tournament since they met in the Wimbledon final last month; Venus played in the sisters' only final of that span, losing to Marion Bartoli at the Bank of the West Classic.

Serena and Venus Williams are the women's marquee stars, but for whatever reason, their most riveting matches are largely found in the majors, their intensity burning the brightest when the klieg lights do. Serena, ranked second in the world, has squared off against top-ranked Dinara Safina only once since they met in last year's US Open semifinal -- in this year's Australian Open final (Williams won both matches). By contrast, Federer has faced Murray, now No 2, five times since they met in last year's US Open final.

Serena has not played Jankovic, who started the year at No 1, since defeating her in the US Open final. Federer has played Rafael Nadal, who was the men's No. 1 at the beginning of 2009, twice this year. Because Federer, 28, has shown no signs of complacency after spending 245 nonsuccessive weeks at No 1, his challengers cannot afford to rest.

Anticipatory limbo
For several days before and after the birth of the twins, Federer spent most of his waking hours at the hospital in Zurich, his life in a sort of anticipatory limbo.
"But I also went for practice, you know, almost every day except obviously during the time of the birth and right after," he said, adding, "My condition trainer was really happy with the work I put in."

For years, the Williams sisters have juggled their tennis careers with myriad outside interests: fashion and interior design (Venus); and fashion, acting and writing (Serena). There is no juggling act harder than parenthood, and yet in the first month, Federer seemed not to struggle at all. "Yeah, I mean, I'm growing into the situation, you know," Federer said. "I'm trying to be a good dad and I think I am."
Federer is the reason the depth and quality of the men's game has never been better. Everybody is forced to raise his effort to match his. When his opponents speak, as Djokovic did last Sunday, of the pressure Federer applies, they are not speaking strictly about on the court. Djokovic, who has lost to Federer in the last two US Opens, hired Todd Martin, a retired American player and former Open finalist, to work with him.

That's why the great Briton hope, Murray, the first player other than Federer or Nadal to occupy the No 2 spot in four years, is spending his off weeks in Miami, practicing twice a day in the unforgiving sun.
Federer's omnipresence helps explain why Nadal spent three hours practicing in searing heat on the day before his first match in Mason. He knows how sharp his strokes must be after taking almost two months off from a knee injury to match Federer in what has become arguably the best rivalry in sports.
Fifth-ranked Andy Roddick wants so much to escape Federer's long shadow he has gone through four coaches since reaching No 1 in late 2003, bringing aboard fresh perspectives in his quest to wring every last drop of his talent.
You can say, as Djokovic repeated, "Yeah, unfortunately, I was born in the wrong era." But the men's pathos is the sport's reward.