Federer is stoppable after all!

Roger Federer... dominance diminishing?-AP ?

If Roger Federer wasn't toppled, he was certainly compelled to scrap over his gilded throne; and what an engrossing scrap it proved, writes VIJAY PARTHASARATHY

IF last year belonged to Roger Federer, and Roger Federer alone, the argument over rights to the 2005 season is bound to spill over to the next. If the Swiss wasn't toppled, he was certainly compelled to scrap over his gilded throne; and what an engrossing scrap it proved, indeed.

So, take a bow, Rafael Nadal; likewise the late-bloomers, Ivan Ljubicic and David Nalbandian; for they are the cream of the batch of 2005, at the vanguard of an unexpected revolution in men's tennis. As for the second string — players such as Nikolay Davydenko, Richard Gasquet and Mario Ancic, the fast-rising Tomas Berdych and Andrew Murray — they have all shown glimpses of their potential, and one expects to hear more of them in the coming seasons.

Scattered through the hierarchy, and adding immense depth to the field, lie men like twice Wimbledon finalist, Andy Roddick and the timeless Andre Agassi, who, at 35, it must be said, looked in peak condition for a ninth Slam. Their mention brings back strange memories. It wasn't long ago that Roddick — he of the bazooka serve and the gorilla's paw swipe forehand — was considered the next big thing to hit the game. But the 2003 US Open champion failed to convert his next few chances, and was easily marginalised. Agassi, for his part, has climbed up and down the rankings more times than he would care to remember; but the quiet years he had in between during the mid-90s could, in part, explain his longevity, the unremitting hunger in his belly. This year, Roddick and Agassi swept through the field in London and New York respectively, only to lose against Federer. They are, in their contrasting fashions, far from finished.

How strange, then, that Federer's most credible challenger, the purported messiah offering hopes of a counterbalance in men's tennis, has been drawn not from the roster of his contemporaries — the likes of the imperious Marat Safin, or the manfully striving Roddick, or Mr. Tenacious Aussie himself, Lleyton Hewitt — but, from the creche. It's as if tennis royalty chose to skip a generation; and one is instantly reminded of Seneca's words — no matter how many you slay, you cannot kill your successor.

Nadal, 19, is a walking study in contradiction: his boyish face belies the Schwarzenegger biceps; the shy, halting voice in press conferences is replaced by the testosterone-charged `Vamos!' on court. Nadal's game itself appears to contain such a fascinating dichotomy. True, it is about brute power, mostly — but that is an unjust oversimplification. The boy's strength is near-superhuman, but more worryingly for his opponents he has picked up the art of mixing things up, especially on clay. (A drilled forehand might thus set up the killer sliced-dropshot from behind the service line.) He has evidently worked on his serve and backhand, often cited as major weaknesses; his range of groundstrokes was in the first place marvellous.

The Spaniard began the year just outside the top 50, but his performance on clay during the lead-up to Roland Garros was arresting. He arrived in Paris consequently as favourite — rather heady for anyone; more so for a teenager playing in his first French Open. And did he manage to cope with the pressure? Well, a large silver trophy inscribed with Nadal's name answers that query.

His widely anticipated semifinal clash against Federer — the Trophy match, as it was promoted — was in the end a let-down. Federer had beaten Nadal in the Miami final earlier in the season, but this time the Spaniard would exact his revenge. Once Nadal and Federer had split the first two sets, the world number one was rarely in control. For once, Federer looked lost, floundering as if out of his depth. Nadal skillfully manipulated the course of the contest with an invigorating display of defensive tennis, making seemingly impossible retrieves to stay in the point and inducing errors from Federer, who was straining to push finer for the lines. Nadal, with that win, would become the only man to have defeated the world number one once in both 2004 and 2005; after his five-set victory over the unseeded Mariano Puerta he became only the second man after Mats Wilander to win at Roland Garros on debut.

Two consecutive losses in Slams for the Swiss seemed unreal, given Federer's domination last year was complete. Earlier this season, the renaissance of the underperforming but immensely-gifted Marat Safin in Melbourne, where he beat Federer in a rollercoaster five-setter and then Hewitt in an anti-climactic final, had seemed to anoint him as the biggest threat to the Swiss genius. As it turned out, that was the herald of a false dawn; and it was a few months before Nadal would assert himself.

In June, Federer arrived in England, ranking safe, yet under some pressure to perform at his favourite Grand Slam, his home away from home, if only to keep personal pride intact. He managed to do that in gorgeous fashion. To watch this year's final was to lose oneself in utter bliss. Federer would later term his majestic performance against Roddick as the best match of his career. (Rise Sir Roger, thrice Wimbledon champion, and counting.)

Elsewhere though, trouble loomed: a cloud of scandal was about to break heavily upon an unsuspecting public. It cannot be denied that athletes have occasionally let their roving eye settle on a performance-enhancing drug and been instantly enamoured. It is a risky business (to employ O. Henry's words entirely out of context), but these things happen. One such tale must be dealt with — though not, thank heaven, to the overshadowing of more vital subjects, such as thrice Wimbledon champions or effervescent teenage prodigies.

Rafael Nadal... on the rise-AP

Despite vigorously protesting his innocence, Guillermo Canas, one of the Tour's more consistent performers over the past three years and a French Open quarterfinalist this year, was handed a two-year suspension, seven months after testing positive for a diuretic in February. The news re-opened several wounds: professional sport has been weighed down these past couple of years by rumours of systematic drug abuse, especially since the high-profile BALCO case in the United States. Several Argentinian tennis players have had their reputations damaged in the recent past. At present there seem to be no answers, just more infuriating questions.

Meanwhile, happily, after stumbling briefly on grass, Nadal's run resumed in the hardcourt season with wins in Canada and China, and he kept pace effortlessly with the rumouredly peerless Federer, matching the latter win for win. Federer and Nadal had an equal share in winning eight of the 10 Masters Series tournaments this season — a record individually.

Federer successfully defended his US Open title to win the sixth Slam of his career; but spare a thought for his opponent in the final, Andre Agassi. The man is like an evergreen conifer that spruces up the scenery and attaches a sense of lingering identity to a constantly shifting landscape. His authoritative and charismatic presence as an elder statesman adds flavour to a circuit somewhat lacking in characters; it injects vitality into a Tour that has in the recent past — if one disregards Federer — rarely risen above a mundane level of efficiency. When Agassi plays these days, he is almost always the sentimental favourite. But make no mistake: that does not imply he necessarily begins as underdog. Ol' Pigeon Toes remains perfectly capable of defeating opponents a decade younger without breaking a sweat. After all these years he still chases balls down, running as though his pants were on fire.

Agassi's quarterfinal showdown versus James Blake in New York proved one of the year's most emotionally draining contests for both, the players and the audience. It was, in a sense, a clash between the good guys, for Agassi and Blake are considered two of the nicest people on the ATP Tour. To split loyalties further, Blake was beginning to get into his stride after a series of personal tragedies struck him in 2004. The result, either way, was always going to emerge as one of the feel-good stories of the tennis season. Given the form he displayed against Nadal's conqueror, it seems likely Agassi would have defeated anyone else in the final. Whether he will have the opportunity to bid a Sampras-esque farewell on his own terms, only time can tell. One can, but hope.

Federer injured his ankle in October but entered the Masters Cup as overwhelming favourite, particularly after a host of fag-end withdrawals through injury. Nalbandian would put an end to Federer's hopes of a third consecutive Masters Cup, or equalling McEnroe's record for the best win-loss record for a season. More significantly, that would be the Swiss's first loss in 24 finals. But by then, Federer's number one ranking was secure, with Nadal still some way behind.

Ivan Ljubicic was another player, who caused Federer serious trouble particularly during the early part of the year, although he was unable to win any of their encounters. Ljubicic's greatest exploits were, however, reserved for the Davis Cup, where he propelled Croatia almost single-handedly to their first title. His most impressive streak began when he defeated both Agassi and Roddick in their first round singles matches, in the presence of an overwhelmingly partisan American crowd. His junior partner, Ancic — a former Wimbledon semi-finalist — played his part too, winning the deciding rubber in the final against Slovakia. Strange resonances echo from around the same time last year, when Nadal first served notice of his potential after defeating Roddick in the Davis Cup final.

Could 2006 be Ancic's year?

The women's season had its stirring moments, as well, and there were several unexpected results. This was for some a season of redemption, an Indian summer; for others it was about the fulfillment of prophecies.

Although no single player was able to take control of the season, the Williams sisters did learn to co-exist alongside their longtime rivals, the Belgian duo of Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters. Serena won the Australian Open, as if guided by destiny, after launching an improbable recovery in the semifinal against Maria Sharapova. Her sister Venus won her first major in four years at Wimbledon after overcoming the luckless Lindsay Davenport, in what was arguably the match of the year. In between, Henin, on the comeback trail after an extended layoff due to illness, beat Mary Pierce in a one-sided final to win at Roland Garros.

Kim Clijsters finally shed the dubious tag of being the best player never to have won a Slam, by winning in New York. Meanwhile, a resurgent Pierce, enjoying her best season in half a decade, made her second Slam final for the year. She continued her superlative streak by making the final of the WTA Championships, only to succumb again; this time to nervous tics, and to a woman out to prove a point — Amelie Mauresmo, now held by consensus to be the finest player never to have won a major. Sharapova, meanwhile, had a relatively quiet year; but there is little doubt she will resurface.

Sania Mirza broke into the top 100 soon after her breakthrough performance at the Australian Open, and carried on after her first WTA title in Hyderabad. After a fourth round appearance at Flushing Meadows, the teenager finds herself entrenched in the high 30s, an admirable achievement by any standards. Hopefully Sania will be able to sustain her position, and make it to the next level.

A top 10 ranking seems tantalisingly within reach.