Saturday, September 01, 2007

Two Champions, and Two Levels of Preparedness

Published: September 2, 2007

The threat to Maria Sharapova (pictured left) materialized as an anonymous Polish player who is neither intimidated by willowy stars with frigid stares nor fat rodents far from the cuddly “Ratatouille” variety.

In fact, Agnieszka Radwanska keeps them caged as pets. (The beasts, not the beauties.)

“They’re dangerous, I think,” Radwanska said of her rats. “They’re aggressive.”

The danger to Roger Federer arrived as an unknown named John Isner, equipped with a college résumé and a periscope’s body. Federer is not acrophobic, but dudes at great heights can freak him out.

Over the years, Max Mirnyi, Mario Ancic, Tomas Berdych and Ivan Ljubicic have formed a 6-foot-4-and-over league of players who have, on exceptional occasion, stolen a match from beneath Federer’s greatness.

So at 6-9, with a big serve that kicked like Beckham, Isner wasn’t simply a tall tale from the first week of the United States Open. He was the real deal.

All of Arthur Ashe Stadium witnessed it yesterday as Isner took the first set from Federer, creating the most raucous rumble this side of the 7 train. Holy upset, was everyone seeing double?

A couple of hours earlier, Sharapova, who like Federer walked into Queens as the defending Open champion, had dropped her first set to Radwanska.

The similarities ended there. Federer decoded what hit him. Sharapova was flummoxed by it. Federer survived in four sets. Sharapova exited in three.

In her evolution as an elite player, if she can ever go beyond her rigid father for coaching advice, Sharapova may learn to adjust to the unforeseen, to greet Tour risers with respect. As it happened, Sharapova allowed herself to be psyched out on her serve when Radwanska jumped to and from the service line as if engaged in some tennis hokey-pokey.

As Radwanska explained, “I knew that she doesn’t like if somebody is moving if she serving.”

Sharapova responded, “I don’t worry about what my opponent is doing.”

But part of the game is recognizing an opponent’s tactics and strengths and hot streaks. Part of being a champion is to fret over every detail, no matter how small or how tall. Federer personally scouted Isner against Jarkko Nieminen in the first round.

“I will probably never be surprised on a tennis court because I don’t underestimate opponents anymore,” Federer said last night, adding, “I knew the danger and was ready for it.”

Federer is on heightened alert — now more than ever. He is the dutiful caretaker of his legacy, not in a paranoid way, but in a preservationist’s way.

“It’s different now than maybe two or three years ago,” Federer, 26, said in a recent interview. “Before, I was happy to be No. 1. I know I’m the best, and it’s easy and I think everything I’m doing is the right thing. Now it’s a bit more different.

“You start to think a little more. You’ve done it over so many years now, and you start to wonder how many more years can you do it.”

Can he top Pete Sampras’s 14 major titles? Can he keep up his streak at No. 1? How long will his body continue to glide lightly, almost ghostlike, over the court?

“Because I’m getting so close to all these records, I think, well, these guys before me didn’t make it longer than this age or that age; so for me, time is getting shorter to some degree,” Federer said. “I know I can do it, but there are more questions now. Can I do it? For the past few years, I have. I’m proud of that.”

His pride doesn’t inhibit self-awareness. He knows there are challengers to his extended dominance. Beyond the Rafael Nadals and Andy Roddicks, there are other Isners lurking. Federer doesn’t dismiss his vulnerability, understanding he is the sitting target in the carnival dunk tank.

“You do feel a little like everybody is trying to figure you out,” Federer said. “I really felt that in the very beginning when I became No. 1. It was like, ‘We’re happy for you, but now we’re going to take you down.’ I think once you prove you’re worthy of No. 1 and then, say, win Wimbledon back to back, then people will say, ‘O.K., he’s not just here to go away.’ And then the respect starts to builds and then the aura, you start to create that. Like some people say I sometimes win matches in the locker room even though I don’t believe that.”

He doesn’t rely on aura to win. Sharapova seems to use it as a crutch. She is graced with as much talent, power and intensity as anyone on the Tour — even the Williams sisters — but she has yet to develop a Plan B when her strategy of glowering and attacking fail to intimidate fearless Poles with pet rats.

“I just didn’t quite feel like me out there,” Sharapova said.

The key isn’t just to know yourself, but also your opponent. Fear the unknown. It works for Federer.



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