The 2004 US Open will be remembered, not so much for the happenings during the fortnight, but for the brilliance of Federer, especially in the final against Lleyton Hewitt.
An eight game spell at the start of the match, when he broke Hewitt's service an amazing four times and again thrice consecutively in the third set, held the tennis world spellbound. The experts hailed him as one of the greats. Players past and present, commentators and scribes ran out of superlatives. Eyes glued to the television as Federer took the first eight games, I knew that such a brilliant spell could not possibly last the duration of the match.
A hiccup in the second set when Federer played like a mortal saw Hewitt with supreme effort draw up alongside. But Federer with Alpine calm, managed to contain the turbulence of Hewitt's 'Come on' screams, egged on by a partisan crowd wanting to see a contest.
In the second set tiebreak, Federer prevailed decisively, moved back into 'The Zone' in the third set and won six games in a row. It was an awesome display. I have never seen such sustained brilliance. At this level of play a single break of serve is significant.
Here, we saw seven breaks of service in three sets in the final of a Grand Slam! Federer has won four of the last six Grand Slams, three of them in the current year. His style of play and behaviour sets him apart from the modern world of tennis. No shouting or screaming or bludgeoning the ball with two hands, but smooth elegant silken shots executed with poise, perfect balance and timing.
His complete repertoire of shots reminded me of Rod Laver, in my view the greatest of all time.
One of the hallmarks of the great is that they are able to somehow find that extra split second to make their shots and never seem to be hustled or ruffled. They enjoy a majestic aura both in victory and defeat. Federer has it all. He is far short, as yet, of the total number of Grand Slam titles won by Pete Sampras (13) and Roy Emerson (12), but after such a display, one has no hesitation in anointing him as an all time great.
Andy Roddick served faster and fastest! Some serves were clocked at an incredible 152 mph! One hopes he has realised that clever variation of the placement of his service even though 15 to 20 mph slower could get him more aces.
He must look beyond the total aggression of his big serve and forehand and develop a good defence and the other weapons in the game such as a net attack and slower topspin passing shots. A good look at Federer's complete game could help him a lot.
Roddick lost to the 6'-6' Swede Joachim Johansson whose big serve and explosive forehand put him on level terms with Roddick. Johansson thrived on Roddick's power packed game. The speed of shot in modern tennis is such that it is difficult to see the ball unless you are watching from the behind the court. Television is a perfect medium, but its shortcoming is that it fails to convey the actual velocity of the ball. Can you believe that Johansson hit a forehand at 104 mph.
It was sad to see the Williams sisters, their cloak of invincibility in tatters. To my mind four things may have brought about their downfall. Complacency, injuries, loss of focus and improvement by the rest of the field. Focus and concentration are vital.
I remember reading about an incident in a book by Wallis Myers, one of the foremost tennis writers of the past, about Susan Lenglen, a dazzling personality and one of the greats in women's tennis. After a match on the Centre Court at Wimbledon in an intermittent drizzle, she came off the court oblivious of the fact that it had drizzled ' such was her concentration.
Since then three quarters of a century has gone by and times have changed. Serena came on court wearing boots, which she peeled off, decked in a necklace and dangling earrings, wearing a bizarre outfit reminiscent of a 'Warrior Princess' in television serials. I do not see how all these can help her focus or concentrate.
In the absence of Henin-Herdenne, Kim Clijsters and the decline of the Williams sisters, the Russians brigade successfully challenged the old patched up warriors, Davenport, Capriati, Mauresmo. Three different Russian winners at the Slams this year. The French (Myskina), Wimbledon (Sharapova) and the US Open (Kuznetsova), and a host of others just as good such as Dementieva, Petrova etc. are evidence of the great depth in Russian tennis.
Out of the lot, I would pick 19-year old Kuznetsova as the most promising. She has a solid all court game with a very good serve, and is blessed with a sturdy physique. It is reported that after winning the US Open, Kuznetsova went out and practised for an hour! So intense is the Russian's passion for success.
Sharapova, easily the most spectacular of the Russian ladies, having learnt her tennis in the US has a different technique from the others. In my view her strokes, though lethal, fall short of the consistency level required at the topmost level of the game. More topspin in her shots would do the trick, but it is too late for her to change at this stage. Sharapova will have periods of brilliance, but she may not have the consistency to be No. 1.
Though the Russian women have monopolised the Grand Slam titles in the current year, they have a couple of rungs to climb to attain the levels of Serena Williams and Henin-Hardenne at their best. Davenport made this very apparent when she wiped out Kuznetsova in the first set of the US Open semi-final, till her hip injury flared up and visibly affected her mobility.
The 2004 Grand Slams are over. Federer stands alone on a pedestal amongst the men, a majestic picture of poise and elegance on his way to join the galaxy of the greats.