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He has no match

Woods, Bryant, Manning, Tomlinson and others merit consideration, but all take a back seat to Federer in a discussion about the world's greatest athletes

September 16, 2007|Kurt Streeter

Tiger Woods, it's time to step up your game.

Kobe Bryant, you too.

LaDainian Tomlinson, Peyton Manning, Shaquille O'Neal, Alex Rodriguez, you've all got a ways to go if you're going to catch up to the greatest athlete on Earth.

That would be none other than Roger Federer, the finely tuned 26-year-old forehand machine who one week ago today, after a Houdini final, held aloft the tall U.S. Open trophy for the fourth straight time.

Roger Federer?

"No question in my mind, Roger is the best athlete in the world," Pete Sampras said on the phone the other day. If form holds, next year he'll break Sampras' all-time Grand Slam event championship tally of 14. It took Sampras 12 years to set that record. Federer will have surpassed it in five.

He doesn't have height that casts a long shadow or muscles that shout at you.

He is of average stature, a shade over 6 feet and about 20 pounds below 200. He hails from Basel, Switzerland, and plays a country club sport with the airy elegance of white linen wafting in the breeze. Pass him on the street and you don't think sports stud, you think runway model.

This guy, at the top of the list?

You bet.

Nudge Woods, chances are he'll agree. He and Federer have become buddies, bonding over prowess. This year, Federer visited Woods at a golf tournament in Florida. "It's pretty neat when you have probably the most dominant athlete on the planet out there in your gallery," Woods told reporters. "What he has done over the last three years is pretty good."

That's a pretty good understatement.

In July 2003, Federer won his first Grand Slam tournament title: Wimbledon. That started a run of excellence he carries on to this day. He has claimed 11 more Grand Slam event championships and held the top ranking in his sport with a relentless grip.

Here in the United States, though, where pro tennis ranks down next to televised poker in popularity, Federer isn't getting the recognition he deserves for pure athletic genius. Ask an average fan, and he'll list Federer well below Bryant, LeBron James or Woods.

Federer is underestimated in much the same way skinny, sly Wayne Gretzky was sold short. He performs with the stealth of a world-class pickpocket. In any one of his matches there will be a point where you rub your eyes and wonder, "Wait a minute, did I just see that? What did he just do?"

Yes, he did get to that ball. Yes, he did get it back at that angle. Yes, that was a winner he just hit.

And then he does something that fools you into thinking it's all very easy. Casually, he strolls about, hardly dropping any sweat, prepping for the next point with the detached visage of a limo driver waiting at the airport for his next ride.

It's part of his mental approach, but it does not get much notice in our over-hyped world. TV just doesn't get it. Watch the highlights of any sport, and what do you find? Not much nonchalance. Instead, a heaping dose of fly-through-the-lane dunks, line-of-scrimmage blowups and home runs launched so far into the sky they appear to rewrite the laws of nature.

That a tennis player could be the world's greatest natural athlete simply flies in the face of SportsCenter.

Sampras agrees.

"The problem is, tennis just doesn't get the respect it deserves," he said. "I know for a fact you've got to be fast, quick, strong . . . the hand-eye coordination has to be there. You're battling against the elements out there, for four hours sometimes, all by yourself, struggling to find a way to win. Roger has it all, the whole package."

It's a remarkably reliable package. Since 2004, along with all those Slams, his win-loss record is 299-21.


Who can top that? Bryant will score 81 points and look like Superman, but without O'Neal, he can't get his team past the first round in the playoffs.

Maybe Woods comes closest to Federer, but can the world's greatest athlete be a guy who doesn't have to run or jump?

Moreover, in the toughest moments, too often Woods comes up inexplicably short. This year alone, he lost the Masters to an Iowan we'd never heard of and the U.S. Open to a beer-bellied Argentine who sucked on cigarettes between rounds.

Lose a big tournament to a fat guy who smokes and, I'm sorry, you can't hold the top spot.

Basel's favorite son does have a weakness. In the last two French Open finals he couldn't beat muscular Rafael Nadal or the dusty red clay. But Jimmy Connors never made a single French final. Neither did Boris Becker. Neither did Sampras.

When Federer plays well, he says it feels as if he is flying. The victories happen with speedy, clear precision. On the flip side, when times are tough and the winds are swirling and another geeked-up opponent is jamming in serves that fall from the clouds, Federer almost invariably keeps his cool.

This year, in the finals of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, he dodged his way through trouble -- hitting winners when he needed to, and then having the good sense to let his opponents overcook.

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