Tennis swaps gender roles

Tennis has always had clear differences between the men's and women's tours. One was highly competitive, with a large pool of potential champions. Upsets were commonplace. The other tour had a small number of champions and an air of inevitability about the big winners. Often one player dominated. 2004 kept to the pattern. The twist was that it was the women's tour that had all the surprises, and on the men's side there was only one story all year: Roger Federer.

Here’s a quiz question: what do Tim Henman, Rafael Nadal, Albert Costa, Gustavo Kuerten, Dominik Hrbaty and Tomas Berdych have in common? They were the only players to beat Roger Federer in 2004.

The first thing to notice about that list is the lack of big name players in it. And this tells the story of 2004 as much as the titles and records that Federer has claimed. His dominance over the rest of the top 10 is so complete that the other players must be getting a complex about it. Certainly, Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick seem to be at a loss to know what to do when facing the Swiss number one.

The more worrying aspect for Federer's main rivals in 2005 is that he seems unflappable in the big matches. His record of 11 finals wins out of 11 belies the fact that he was also unbeaten in all the semi-finals he played, and only lost one quarter-final. Message to the rest of the field: beat him early or forget it.

The grand slam in the modern era is a challenge that few players can seriously contemplate. Yet there are no doubts that Federer can do it. The first challenge, the Australian Open, is a tournament where fitness plays a large part. Marat Safin, twice a runner up, will be second favourite, assuming he keeps his mind together and gets a kinder draw than last year. Hewitt seems afflicted by the pressure of his home event, which is odd considering his performances in Australia in the Davis Cup. Andy Roddick has fond memories of the Aussie Open after his titanic battle in 2003 against the Moroccan Younes El Aynaoui, but has lost his way and his coach in the last few months.

Outside of that top four, Andre Agassi has the best track record with four Australian titles, and will be desperate to win another major before retiring. He was also the only player to take Federer to five sets in 2004. After Agassi, Carlos Moya and David Nalbandian are interesting outside bets. And then the field starts to fall off dramatically. Perhaps a young player will make a breakthrough, such as Nadal or Joachim Johansson. Tim Henman, Sebastian Grosjean and Tommy Haas will provide good matches, but are nowhere near the level required to win a slam.

The biggest challenge for Federer in 2005 is not so much the rest of the field, as history. No male player has won the French Open and Wimbledon in the same season since Bjorn Borg (who did the feat in 1978-80). Given the lack of time between the events and the demands of switching from clay to grass, very few players have been close. Agassi won the French but lost the final of Wimbledon in 1999, and Jim Courier went to both finals in 1993. So how can Federer achieve this elusive double?

Firstly, although the surfaces still require players to adjust their games, the heavier balls used at Wimbledon and lighter balls at the French have evened things up a little. The French clay plays reasonably quickly, and the grass has been changed over time to be less of a lottery. The chance to succeed on both surfaces, however remote, has been improved.

Secondly, Federer is not only such a gifted player that he can play on anything, he has proved that he can win on different surfaces week on week. His run of Wimbledon, Gstaad and Toronto last season was grass, clay, cement. That puts fear into opponents. Boris Becker commented back in 1995 that Pete Sampras could win on any surface, any time, anywhere. That is how the players feel about Federer right now.

Lastly, there is belief. Many commentators felt that Federer might not have the temperament to succeed at the US Open. He destroyed Hewitt in the final. His record stands at played four, won four in both grand slam finals and semi-finals. Many great players take a while to find their feet on the big occasion. Agassi won in his fourth grand slam final, Ivan Lendl his fifth. No such jitters for Federer.

If Federer can do the French-Wimbledon double, regardless of the rest of the season, we can start to remove the provisos on the tag of "best player ever". Pete Sampras may have the mantle for now, but his reign may be over by the end of next summer.

On the women's tour, things are far less clear-cut. The results are like the men's tour were a few years back - big names falling early, lesser-known names emerging. It would be a big surprise if any of the grand slam winners retained their trophies. There could be another three or four new winners again this year. One of them should be Amelie Mauresmo. She has the game and experience to win on every surface, and should capitalise on the fluctuations in the power of the tour - if she can make the mental leap.

The shift of power from the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, and the Belgian duo of Justine Henin-Hardene and Kim Clijsters, to the Russian players has been startling. Of the four leading players from that country, Maria Sharapova has the game and talent to stay at the top. Anastasia Myskina and Svetlana Kuznetsova, the French and US Open champions respectively, may turn out to be one-off winners. Elena Dementieva, slam finalist twice last year, is sixth in the world with a serve that many club players would be ashamed of.

To complete a very strange season, the women's number one is none other than Lindsay Davenport - the often-injured veteran player who was considering retirement for most of the season. When Kim Clijsters briefly held the top spot last year, the debate about whether a player should be number one without holding a major title divided many. Now, that goes for the top two players in the world.

In the past, the women's game was always the one with certainty about who would contest the major honours. Now, the men's tour has the familiar faces. Tennis has done a gender role-reversal in 2004. Next year might well throw up some even more preposterous results.

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