Federer's dominance drains all drama from men's tennis

Other Voices

December 28, 2006|By Charles Bricker | Charles Bricker,South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Roger Federer won't play his first 2007 match until Jan. 8, and here's hoping he either slips a bit over his nearly impeccable form of the past three years or someone - anyone - steps up to push him to the wall.

Because right now, notwithstanding Andy Roddick's three (failed) match points against Federer in the Masters Cup in November, there is no drama at the upper level of men's tennis, and that is turning off fans.

That's my view and it's not shared by Jason Bernstein, the director of programming and acquisitions at ESPN and a man who probably knows more about tennis than anyone else at the United States' leading sports network - cable or otherwise.

"When you see a player take a set from Roger, the match becomes that much more engaging," Bernstein said.

The point he was making is that Federer is so dominant that when something finally does turn against him, fan interest is piqued because of the anticipation of a major upset. To see Federer lose would be a major event because it happens so rarely.

I don't see it that way. My view is that there are only a few events at which Federer jogs your interest, and even then you may not stay tuned for long.

I could take a half-hour going over the salient Federer numbers, but here are a few:

He has won nine Grand Slam events, beginning with the 2003 Wimbledon. Of his 45 titles, 38 have come since winning that first Wimbledon. Federer is 99-6 in Grand Slam matches the past three years. He has won his past 48 grass-court matches. He's 245-15 over the past three years.

He hasn't surpassed Pete Sampras' 14 majors yet, but with six to go there are many already calling him the greatest player ever. Yet he is a public relations dud in the United States and he doesn't boost TV ratings here.

Why? Because he's just too good. For the uninitiated, you go to a Federer match or watch on television out of curiosity. It's normal to want to find out why this guy is almost unbeatable, and you are, of course, amazed by his shot-making.

But he doesn't sustain your interest in the way Andre Agassi did or even Roddick, who gives you real personality on court along with his game.

Or you tune into a Federer final at a key tournament (Indian Wells, Key Biscayne, Canadian Open) because you expect the level of play to be high and you're hoping for some drama. Usually, there is little or none. I know recreational tennis players who have a high interest in the game, watch the first set of a Federer match, which he invariably wins, and then ... "click."

The people who run the ATP tour are trying their best to sell Federer. Federer himself is trying to sell Federer to American audiences. He hired a U.S.-based IMG agent, who has him going off to visit with tsunami victims to boost his image as a caring person.

That's not to say Federer has to become a "personality" or get surly on court, which he is certainly capable of doing off the court. But what would increase tennis audiences during the Federer Era is some suspense.

Someone has to step up in 2007, and there are three major suspects:

Roddick: With Jimmy Connors as his coach, he sounds committed to getting more inside the service line. That's what he did against Federer at the Masters Cup, including more serve-and-volley, and it put a crimp in Federer's ability to block serves back deep. Those returns must have looked like hanging curve balls as Roddick closed on the net. But Roddick has to become even more proficient at net and stay cool when he has a chance to win.

Rafael Nadal: He beat Federer four times in 2005 and in the final of the French Open - the only really anticipated dramatic moments of any Federer match in 2006. But Joachim Johansson, Tomas Berdych and James Blake found that low, flat forehands to Nadal's forehand exposed a weakness. He's going to have to learn to flatten his forehands off those shots, because unless they're low enough, he can't get under them enough to hit his signature topspin.

Johansson: He's got the big game to give Federer trouble, though they've never played. Back from serious medical problems that put him out 95 percent of 2006, he's an X factor in 2007.

Charles Bricker writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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