An artist finding his full expression

Roger Federer's assumption of the No.1 ranking during the Australian Open was predictable: he is not just tennis' prettiest player but its most gifted, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

MARAT SAFIN could have played Roger Federer in his backyard on Moscow ice. Or on the moon. After a one month rest. With oxygen cylinders courtside. And a bikini-clad cheer squad singing his praises at every changeover.

Wouldn't matter. No one was going to beat Roger Federer at the Australian Open. Not Safin. Not anyone. The tired Russian was unarguably the best story of the Open. The Swiss was indisputably its finest player.

Sourav Ganguly once confessed that he enjoyed watching videotapes of himself playing. Presumably, so does Federer, who owns no coach but whose constant rearranging of his ponytail suggests he might first require a travelling hairdresser. He plays with the ease of a man born to tennis, one moment manufacturing hissing slices laced with deceit, next moment steeping into second serves with the violent intent of Genghis Khan. Mostly he commits beautiful murder.

Safin chasing after yet another heavily spun, inch-perfect, veering-away forehand in the final would give up with a sigh, a sudden exhalation brought about both by exhaustion and envy. As the Russian comedian put it: "I don't want to push myself down because I lost a match against Federer. It's not like I played against a yo-yo, a guy who doesn't know how to play tennis. You know what I mean?".

Yes we do. Opponents would construct a diamond of a shot and hurl it at Federer, but he, seemingly with more time to respond than possible, merely polished it and sent it back. It is said he now has a men's fragrance selling on the market: presumably it is called Smooth.

Federer's assumption of the No.1 ranking during the tournament was predictable: he is not just tennis' prettiest player but its most gifted. In the past eight months he has played a game we are not familiar with, and evidently neither are his opponents. Since July, there have been four major tournaments — Wimbledon, U. S. Open, Masters Cup, Australian Open — and only in New York did his art fail.

At the other three events put together he lost four sets in 19 matches. But even that presents an incomplete picture. At Wimbledon, he played Andy Roddick in the semis and Mark Phillippoussis in the finals. In the Masters Cup, he played Andre Agassi (twice), Roddick, Juan Carlos Ferrero and David Nalbandian. At the Australian Open he played Ferrero in the semis and Safin in the final. These are the world's top players, and he lost but a set to them in these nine matches.

All fortnight, whenever Federer played, no make that performed, all manner of name dropping began: eager to draw comparisons, some mentioned Bjorn Borg, others John McEnroe and even more Pete Sampras. The first was tennis' inscrutable warrior of consistency; the second its Merlin, an antique illusionist; the third its Alexander, the game's most complete conqueror. At 22, compliments don't get better than this, so what if some of it is exaggerated? Perhaps the Swiss has just a little bit of them all.

Federer is Borg and he is not. He wears a similar headband, and is known for dropping to his knees as if to give thanks for the skills he has been given, but thereabouts the comparison ends. Borg's face was as immovable as a marble statue, Federer allows himself wry smiles, small fist pumps, barks of pleasure and pain at shots imperfect or blemished. Borg frustrated opponents with his metronomic rhythm and unerring preciseness, Federer merely baffles them with alteration of paces, geometrical mastery and driving strokes. In his power there is pleasure. The Swede avoided errors, the Swiss collects winners.

Measuring a player of Federer's exquisiteness by statistics appears rude, as if asking Picasso how many masterpieces he painted. But the Swiss's numbers echo his philosophy, they advertise his intent to dominate, they suggest a confidence wherein he knows he will hit the lines more often than the man across the net will.

Against his seven opponents in Melbourne his unforced error count was almost similar if not more: versus Alex Bogomolov jr (25 Federer errors to his opponent's 22), Jeff Morrison (15-14), Todd Reid (29-31), Lleyton Hewitt (41-29), David Nalbandian (55-30), Ferrero (22-19) and Safin (28-41).

Yet his number of winners, including on serve, usually far outweighed his opponents: Bogomolov jr (42 Federer winners to his opponent's 9), Morrison (32-31), Reid (31-6), Hewitt (53-17), Nalbandian (50-26), Ferrero (34-21) and Safin (40-19).

Federer is not McEnroe but he is a more modern magician. The American played not with racquet but stiletto, and the Swiss lacks his gentle genius. But Federer's elegance is beyond question, he has so much feel the racquet appears like an extension of his arm.

His sleight of hand is less obvious, but perhaps that is because he is producing it at about 150 kmh. To find subtlety, to create angles, to tease with spin and torment with changes of pace, while playing at such extraordinary speeds, often on the dead run, shows a formidable dexterity.

Federer himself is not shy about talking of what he can do, and if it weren't for his slightly stilted English and charmingly open smile, you'd think he was boasting. As he said: "But just for me, my game feels natural. I feel like I'm living the game when I'm out there. I feel when a guy is going to hit the ball, I know exactly with the angles and the spins, I just feel that I've got that figured out. And that is just a huge advantage."

Federer is not Sampras, though some would have us add the word "yet". To compare him with the greatest modern player ever appears impertinent, but then so is Federer's game. After the final, Safin stoked the argument, saying: "They have some kind of same things. But I think Federer, he has better — he a little bit — I don't want to take anything from Pete. I mean, mentally, Pete was the strongest player on the tour. He has the biggest serve in the world. He has an unbelievable forehand and very good hands in the volley. But sometimes he was missing a little bit the backhand."

Safin is right and he is wrong. If you break both players into specific shots, Sampras appears superior: his overhead was sensational while Federer is prone to more mistakes; the American's first and second serve are among the greatest shots in the game, though Federer's four successive aces when break point down to Nalbandian is evidence he can summon up such pure striking when it matters, too; Federer has soft hands at the net, one stop volley against Safin particularly delicious, but he uses the net far less than Sampras and lacks his completeness; the forehands are somewhat equal, Federer's armed with a heavier topspin but Sampras' running forehand cross-court a stroke of damaging beauty. It is only on the backhand that Federer is easily more comfortable and devastating.

But what the backhand does, in alliance with the Swiss' cleverness, is give him a certain all-round quality; he has no evident weakness, but the American did. It suggests that unlike Sampras, even on clay Federer poses as a contender.

John McEnroe interviews Roger Federer, the Australian Open champion. Federer is not McEnroe but he is a more modern magician. The American played not with racquet but stiletto, and the Swiss lacks his gentle genius. But Federer's elegance is beyond question, he has so much feel the racquet appears like an extension of his arm. — Pic. AFP-

Comparisons make for fine conversation, but this one should end here. Sampras was tennis' most disciplined champion, and Benedictine monks have been less focussed. In his mind, defeat did not exist, he played with an authority, almost an arrogance, that was dazzling to watch and mostly impossible to contend with. He led the rankings for a record 286 weeks, Federer has topped it for just one week so far; he won 14 Grand Slam tournaments; Federer so far just two.

How badly Federer aches for victory, how deep his desire runs, how ably he can construct victory even when his form temporarily deserts him, this we do not know. At present, he exists in a perfect world, no shot is beyond his imagination, no high note his racquet cannot hit.

But in time injury may come calling, his magic may suddenly abscond, and suddenly the world will be a less pleasant place. Roddick, Ferrero, Safin and Hewitt will pick and prod at his pedestal, lesser players will come alive at the thought of his scalp and complimentary talk of him one day winning the Grand Slam will turn into sneering expectation. It is then, when confidence is rattled, and pressure stifling, we will know who Federer is, what steel his spine is made of. Greatness is a long distance run.

Still, the future cannot obstruct the sheer dazzle of the present. For long much had been expected of Federer and he has delivered: for the past eight months he has been a study of an artist finding his full expression, learning to blend his finesse with court savvy, meshing tactics with shot selection, unifying discipline with desire.

The result is a player tennis has dreamed of. Federer has got off his knees, now we should get down on ours in thanks.