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The emergence of a new star is a regular sporting occurrence. But in New York this weekend something altogether rarer and more thrilling happened. An entire sport woke up to the fact that it had someone in its midst who was not just special, not just number one at the moment, but among the greatest practitioners it had ever seen. Maybe the greatest of all.
The sport is tennis. The man is Roger Federer of Switzerland, who not merely beat Lleyton Hewitt of Australia in the final of the US Open on Sunday night but ate him alive: 6-0 7-6 6-0.
That's the sort of thing that might be expected if a low-ranked player had crept through one half of the draw and then faced Federer. But Hewitt is the number three. Indeed, on the form of the past two months, since Federer despatched Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon final, Hewitt was generally reckoned to be playing the best tennis in the world himself.
Three years ago, when the Australian beat Pete Sampras in this final, it appeared to mark a generational shift: the passing of the Sampras era into an age that might be ruled by Hewitt, or at any rate players like him, who would seek to dominate from the back of the court. Sunday's final proved the inadequacy of both the man and the strategy against a player of Federer's staggering range and all-court brilliance. Whenever Hewitt did keep the ball away from his sensational forehand, Federer found another weapon. “Too good, mate,” Hewitt whispered to Federer as they embraced afterwards. There was nothing else he could say.
Federer champion in Melbourne, Wimbledon and New York but not Paris is the first man since Mats Wilander in 1988 to win three grand-slam tournaments in a year, and Wilander never won Wimbledon or even looked like doing so. The next comparison is with Jimmy Connors, who won all three grand slams he entered in 1974. But Connors' unchallenged reign turned out to be very brief: he was quickly overhauled by the likes of John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg.
Federer has to add clay to his mastery of every other surface. But if he can do that and there seems no obvious reason why not we would be looking for comparisons with the last man to do the grand slam, Rod Laver in 1969. Even Laver lost a set in the US final.
And quite frankly it is hard to believe the players of the 60s can seriously be compared to this generation. Modern men's tennis is an exceptionally hard sport to dominate. Every time you see Tim Henman struggle against the number hundred-and-something, you realise how much quality there is out there. The grand-slam tournaments are strung out between January and September, and the important end-of-season Tennis Masters Cup lies ahead, so there is little chance of a break, far less than in golf. And the variety of surfaces requires constant adjustments.
Furthermore, if you analyse Federer's performances, the more astounding they appear. He does lose occasionally. But he has won 16 successive matches against fellow top-10 players. And savour that score again 6-0 7-6 6-0. What one sensed in the second set was that here was a man subconsciously switching off a fraction, a champion so in charge that he could not even regard Hewitt in the Flushing Meadows cockpit as a wholly worthy challenge. It was as though he was testing the white lines for the hell of it. Boredom may be a greater threat to him than any rival.
The final made Tim Henman's respectable performance against Federer in the semi-final look even better. Poor old Henman! The idea that, at 30, he can now ever win a major seems entirely far-fetched. At least he has the consolation that Hewitt, Roddick and everyone else are thinking similar dark thoughts.
Things can change, of course. But as they stand, the words of Brian London, the dear old pug from Blackpool who once preposterously went into the ring with Muhammad Ali, come to mind. “What advice do you have for Ali's next challenger?” he was asked afterwards. “Give up, go 'ome,” he replied.
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