A fabulous season

Andy Roddick finished the season as No. 1, winning six titles from eight finals. He made the semifinals or better in three of the four Grand Slams. -- Pic. NICK LAHAM/GETTY IMAGES-

Roger Federer captured everyone's imagination with his fluid, mesmerising game over a fortnight at Wimbledon, writes KAMESH SRINIVASAN.

IT was a fabulous season that offered many fascinating freeze frames. If Roger Federer restored the serve and volley game at Wimbledon, Andy Roddick presented a handsome picture of the future of American tennis.

There was the evergreen Andre Agassi winning his eighth Grand Slam and the fourth Australian Open crown in Melbourne, and there was the coming of age of Juan Carlos Ferrero who, at last, got the act right at the Roland Garros. Never mind that the No. 1 player of the last two years, the 22-year-old Lleyton Hewitt, was unable to assert his authority, for there were many claimants to his throne.

On the other hand, there was the `Serena Slam', as the powerful young American captured the Australian Open, to win four Grand Slams in a row. The Belgians, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, had their time under the sun, especially the former, as she won the French Open and the U.S. Open, but it was the Williams story yet again at Wimbledon. Of course, there was no change to the script as Serena once again beat her elder sister, Venus, in the final.

It may be pretty difficult to pull one of these athletes and say that the year belonged to him or her. Yet, one is not that indecisive, not to cast the vote for the Swiss star Roger Federer, who captured everyone's imagination with his fluid, mesmerising game over a fortnight at Wimbledon, losing a solitary set on way to the crown.

Swiss star Roger Federer lost just a solitary set on way to the Wimbledon crown. — Pic. AFP-

The 21-year-old Federer, who was presented a 800-kg cow named Juliette in Gstaad, won more money ($956,802) for the biggest tennis title, than what Hewitt won through the year, $873,598.

For someone who had won the Wimbledon junior singles and doubles titles in 1998, and who continued to be equally good in both forms of the game, winning the Masters series doubles titles with Max Mirnyi of Belarus before the latter was hauled back to an earlier partnership by Mahesh Bhupathi, Federer was the overwhelming personality in 2003.

Federer had started playing the game when he was eight and has been idolising Boris Becker and liking the purist's delight, Pete Sampras. He would have made both of them proud with the sort of game he played that saw him not losing his serve even once in 35 games in the semifinal and final of Wimbledon against the likes of Roddick and Mark Philippoussis.

No wonder that a genius like John McEnroe said that Federer had been the best to emerge in 10 years of men's tennis. Federer had given a hint of things to come when he stopped the winning sequence of Sampras at Wimbledon on way to the quarterfinals in 2001. He had otherwise lost in the first round thrice before winning the most coveted tennis trophy.

Belgians Justine Henin-Hardenne (right) and Kim Clijsters had their time under the sun, especially the former, as she won the French Open and the U.S. Open titles. Henin and Clijsters, who retained her title in the season-ending championships, finished the year as No. 1 and 2. — Pic. ADAM PRETTY/GETTY IMAGES-

Moreover, it was just amazing how Federer put things together in a competitive season, in which the crowning glory came at Houston, in the Tennis Masters Cup when he won all his five matches in the top-8 field, for a princely prize of $1,520,000. Roddick beat him to the year-end No. 1 spot by a few points, but Federer won seven titles from nine finals and won those on three surfaces, clay, grass and hard, compiling a 78-17 record for the season. He won two doubles titles including the Masters Series event in Miami, for an overall collection of $4,000,680 for the season.

It would have been a dream year but for it being shattered in the Davis Cup semifinal when Federer lost his second singles match to Hewitt after being two sets up and 5-3 in the third. He had beaten Philippoussis in the first match to raise the hopes for Switzerland. For Hewitt and Philippoussis though, it was pretty satisfying to finish the year with the Davis Cup trophy that they helped Australia win for the 28th time in 47 finals. Australia defeated Spain in the final as Philippoussis clinched it with a 7-5, 6-3, 1-6, 2-6, 6-0 win over Juan Carlos Ferrero in the fourth rubber, serving 20 aces and 16 doublefaults.

Ferrero, however, had been unstoppable in the French Open, having gained invaluable lessons on way to the final and two semifinals in previous attempts. He blew away Dutchman Martin Verkerk without so much as breaking into a sweat, after the latter had done all the work with his big serves that saw him tame the defending champion Albert Costa.

"I had the experience of playing bad last year in the final," Ferrero said. "Before the match, I was thinking that I had to give my best mentally, physically and tennistically. It was a perfect final for me."

"Before I moved after my serve, the ball was on my feet. His level was unbelievable," Verkerk said after an exasperating final.

Of course, our own Rohan Bopanna, the confident young man from Coorg who had won a $15,000 Futures title in Indonesia, had Verkerk on the mat in Zwolle in the Davis Cup World Group qualifying round, before letting him escape to a 5-7, 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (9-7), 12-10 triumph in four hours and 34 minutes on indoor carpet.

At the U.S. Open, it was Ferrero who had done all the hard work beating the former champions Hewitt and Agassi before falling to Roddick.

Before we salute the future of American tennis, let us take our hats off to what the pundits call, the "ageless veteran" Andre Agassi.

"I am really overwhelmed by it," said the 33-year-old Agassi after winning the Australian Open. "I have said so many times, as you get older you realise how quickly these moments pass and you want to make the most of them. To win down here again was just more than I could dream of."

Agassi finished in the top-10 for the 14th time in his career, thanks mainly to his third successive Australian Open title. He was splendid at the Slams, making it to the fourth round or better at all four events.

Well, Roddick became the sixth American after Sampras (6), Jimmy Connors (5), McEnroe (4), Jim Courier and Agassi to finish the season as No. 1, winning six titles from eight finals. He made the semifinals or better in three of the four Grand Slams, that spoke eloquently for America's hottest young talent, quite appropriately taking the mantle after the retirement of Sampras.

Roddick won five matches from being matchpoints down. The best was his quarterfinal at the Australian Open when he beat the 31-year-old Younes El Aynaoui of Morocco 21-19 in the fifth set, in four hours and 59 minutes. They had played 42 games and a tie-break in the first four sets, before another 40 in the longest fifth set in Grand Slam history.

Serena Williams completed the `Serena Slam' when she won the Australian Open, to claim four Grand Slams in a row. She also beat her sister Venus, a repeat of last year's final, for the Wimbledon crown. — Pic. PHIL COLE/GETTY IMAGES-

Quite significantly Roddick won back-to-back Masters titles in Montreal and Cincinnati. It is a Herculean task to win six matches in seven days against the best in the business, and to do so twice in a fortnight was an incredible feat, achieved only by the likes of Sampras, Agassi, Courier, Michael Chang, Patrick Rafter, Marcelo Rios and Andrei Medvedev.

Equally rare was the experience of four from Argentina, Guillermo Coria, David Nalbandian, Agustine Calleri and Gaston Gaudio occupying the semifinal spots in the Masters Series event in Hamburg.

"The economic situation is bad in Argentina. So, maybe the juniors will get a chance to travel and fulfil their talent. Maybe if we keep winning we keep the door open for them to continue their career," said Coria.

The 21-year-old Coria won three titles in a row in Stuttgart, Kitzbuhel and Sopot to become the first man to do so after Thomas Muster had accomplished a similar feat winning in Estoril, Barcelona and Monte Carlo in 1996.

Federer had looked ready to win three in a row, following the ones in Halle and Wimbledon, before he was beaten back at home in Gstaad in five sets by Jiri Novak.

Tennis was taken to great heights when Nicolas Lapentti beat Victor Hanescu 6-4, 6-7 (4-7), 6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (14-12), 6-3 in the fourth rubber that kept the tie open for Ecuador against Romania in the Davis Cup world group play-off. All five matches went to five sets, and Romania prevailed 7-5 in the 25th set. There was about 20 hours of exciting play, 2,800 metres above sea level at Quito.

Finally, we bow to Martina Navratilova, who won the Australian Open and the Wimbledon mixed doubles titles with Leander Paes. More than that, the ageless wonder won our admiration by opting out of the U.S. Open as her partner Leander was in hospital in Orlando, following a brain lesion.

The 46-year-old Navratilova equalled Billie Jean King's record of 20 Wimbledon titles, and overall took her tally to 58 Grand Slam titles. She also completed the record of everything that a woman can win, singles, doubles and mixed doubles in all the four Grand Slams.

"I certainly didn't think that I would still be playing at this age. When I was growing up I wanted to be the youngest person to win something, not the oldest," Navratilova said.

"Thank you Martina for letting me be your vehicle to greatnesss," said Leander, in his inimitable polite manner.

When Leander was born in 1973, Navratilova had already won her first Grand Slam title.

Well, you never know when a champion is born, and how long he or she can dominate the world.

For sure, the likes of Federer, Roddick, Ferrero and Hewitt will be there next year to assert their class. However, a bunch of talented Russian kids will be questioning the supremacy of the Williams sisters, out with injuries after Wimbledon, and the Belgian queens Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne.