- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 18, 2007

MASON, Ohio

If you believe Roger Federer, his pursuit of Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles happened almost by accident. This was not a kid who grew up dreaming of tennis stardom: Fascinated by basketball, Federer says, he decorated his bedroom with posters of Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal.

If you believe Federer, he is not “too obsessed” with getting the better of Rafael Nadal, no matter what it takes. Federer did, after all, give his on-court nemesis a ride on a private jet from last week’s tournament in Montreal to this week’s tournament here after learning that Nadal was having trouble finding a suitable commercial flight. Yep, there they were, thousands of feet above the earth, Roger and Rafa, chatting with their girlfriends over a sushi lunch, like any pair of wealthy pals. Would McEnroe have done that for Connors? Would Woods for Mickelson?

If you believe Federer, he was an overly competitive, emotional wreck as a teen — and that was just when he played chess with his father, knocking pieces off the board with a swipe of his hand after losing. He took tennis setbacks hard back then, too, he says, smashing rackets and crying inconsolably after defeats. Eventually, in his early 20s, Federer says, he learned to control such feelings, part of a general maturation that led to his steady on-court demeanor; tears shed nowadays are of the joyous variety.

If you believe Federer, he lives with self-doubt, with the worry that he’ll awake one day and no longer have the skills that have put him at No. 1 in the rankings for a record 185 consecutive weeks, that have led to a .935 winning percentage since 2004, that have earned him 11 Grand Slam titles heading into the Aug. 27-Sept. 9 U.S. Open, that awe opponents and fans and, yes, even Federer himself.

“I surprise myself, almost every day,” he said during an interview with the Associated Press this week. “The shots I come up with. And if I win, you know, I’m surprised I won. And if I won, I’m surprised I won that easily, sometimes, you know. I win a tough match, and I can’t believe the way I got out of it. So, yeah, I get surprised over and over again.”

Yet there’s that gnawing sense it all could slip away, a feeling that rushes over him from time to time, particularly in the restless hours preceding a big match played at night. It’s why he says he’s always looking to improve, why he can’t seem to settle on a coach and, indeed, currently is without one.

“I have this worry that I’m not going to play well. … That the day comes where I don’t know how to hit a forehand anymore, you know? That I’m blank,” Federer said, holding his palms up for emphasis. “That I come on the court and I can’t do it.”

Implausible as that might sound, you certainly want to believe Federer, and believe inFederer — believe that he’s genuine. And not merely because his mounting victories force a discussion of whether he is the greatest talent in the history of tennis, but also because he’s plying his craft at a rough-and-tumble time in the sports world.

Heck, there’s even a betting probe in tennis.

“I have heard of stories of people getting sometimes money offered for losing a match and stuff. A lot of money,” Federer said. “Nowadays, sports has some funny things going on. Maybe it’s just a bad period.”

But here’s the thing: It’s easy to believe in Federer.

“He’s everything you would want and expect a decent person to be, and yet he’s been able to make a lie of the truism that good guys finish second because, in this case, he’s a good guy that comes first all the time,” ATP executive chairman Etienne de Villiers said in a telephone interview.

In the players’ lounge and outside the locker room, Federer draws smiles, handshakes and greetings from past and future opponents, players whose careers might have been oh-so-different had a certain someone born in Basel, Switzerland, in August 1981, stuck to basketball. Or soccer, Federer’s other early love.

Take Andy Roddick, the last player other than Federer to win the U.S. Open, in 2003. The last player other than Federer to finish a year ranked No. 1, also in 2003. Someone who has lost three Grand Slam finals, all to Federer. Someone who is 1-13 against Federer.

“I have loads of respect for him, as a person as well,” Roddick said after their 2005 Wimbledon title match. “I’ve told him before: ‘I’d love to hate you, but you’re really nice.’ ”

If there’s a knock on Federer, a reason some surmise he doesn’t get his due in the United States, it’s that he’s, well, boring. He doesn’t berate chair umpires. Or toss rackets. Or get into fights with paparazzi. It’s a notion Federer called “totally unfair.”

“People are intrigued with crazy things, you know, in this day and age, especially with reality TV shows and stuff. I see where they are coming from, but … I still believe that good manners and politeness is the better way to go,” he said. “And if that’s boring, then I’m sorry.”

Asked to admit to a vice or bad trait, this is what Federer came up with: He often shows up as many as 10 minutes late when he’s supposed to meet someone.

Gasp!

Like many others in the sport, the man who runs the U.S. Open will let that slide.

“He has a sense of dignity and style and class, both on and off the court, that is going to win over New Yorkers and the entire country, big-time, and more so as time goes on,” said Arlen Kantarian, the U.S. Tennis Association’s chief executive of pro tennis. “He is, I think, also one of those players that we’re going to tell our grandchildren about 20 years from now: ‘We saw Roger Federer play.’ That’s how significant to the game he has — and will — become.”

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