Ring in the new, ring out the old

AS much as we like to compartmentalise different eras in the world of sport, in actual fact, eras don't end abruptly; they merely fade away, sometimes in quick time, at other times rather slowly.

AS much as we like to compartmentalise different eras in the world of sport, in actual fact, eras don't end abruptly; they merely fade away, sometimes in quick time, at other times rather slowly. Seldom, then, can we look back and say that one era ended here, say, at 4.30 p.m. on Sunday, July 6 and another began there.

Yet, looking back at the recent events in the world of tennis, it might be possible to say that what we witnessed at Wimbledon last fortnight was surely a changing of guard scene in men's tennis. The seeds were planted in 2002 when both Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi lost in the second round while Goran Ivanisevic failed to turn up to try and defend his hard won title.

Lleyton Hewitt, playing with as much confidence — if not with the same level of skills — as displayed by Agassi in 1992 went on to take the title. But there were still a few question marks then as to what the 30-something legends might still be capable of. But the crowning of Roger Federer this year certainly marks the beginning of a new era.

For, Sampras is gone and Agassi, as fit as he is, as seemingly eager as he may be, does not have too much time left. And when you look at the larger picture, with Andy Roddick, 20, making two semifinals this year in the Slams — in Melbourne and at Wimbledon — it is clear that the new generation is ready to lead the way.

It would be unwise to totally write of Agassi's chances; the man from Las Vegas is far too talented and we'd look like fools if he went on to win another major. Yet, the future belongs to the crop led by Federer. There has been considerable pressure on the young Swiss from the moment he outlasted a jaded Sampras in five sets in the fourth round in Wimbledon two years ago. He didn't ask to be anointed the great man's heir apparent; but the media did that anyway.

And, through a good part of the next 24 months, until his dream run last fortnight on the famous lawns, Federer struggled to live up to that tag. By far the most gifted player of his generation, he failed to make an impression in the majors and, as Boris Becker loves to say, you don't become a great player by winning Key Biscayne, or for that matter any other ATP Tour event. That Federer finally put it all together in the last week of June and the first week of July not only helped him throw the monkey off his back but also, more significantly, gave men's tennis a big shot in the arm. The greatest is gone and Agassi has just a little bit left; this meant the men's game lacked genuine class on the big stage.

For all the virtues displayed by the average, hard working lot of players, a Slam final falls flat when you have someone like Rainer Schuettler playing Agassi, as it happened in Australia. Not only do you need characters but more importantly you need players who can dish out high quality fare, as did Federer.

Unfortunately, Mark Philippoussis, himself a very talented player, failed to live up to expectations in the final against Federer; as well as the Swiss played, if Philippoussis had been as sharp as he was against Agassi or in the last three sets of his epic quarterfinal against the German Alexander Popp, Wimbledon 2003 would have witnessed a final that was far more thrilling and qualitatively memorable. No matter all that, it is apparent now that Federer is the man to beat; especially on the faster surfaces, at Wimbledon and at the U.S. Open. He should be able to ride this momentum and claim the No.1 ranking before the year is out. Of course, the challenge he will face in New York will be of a much higher level than he blew off the courts in Wimbledon. But he is gifted enough to handle that.

In some ways, Federer is a bit like Sampras; a phenomenal natural talent who goes about his business on and off the court with tremendous dignity and someone who displays commendable humility. Yet, there is a suspicion that the 21-year-old Swiss player may be a little too emotionally fragile to be able to dominate the game as Sampras did in his prime.

But, given the fact that he has got a head start at age 21, Federer has the world at his feet. And when you look at the players who he will meet time and again in the majors — men like Hewitt, Roddick, Ferrero — there is room for optimism. Whether this generation will go on to match the deeds of supermen such as Sampras and Agassi remains to be seen. It is unlikely that any of them, including Federer, would be able to pull up alongside Sampras. But, then, it would be unwise to imagine that every generation would produce a Pete Sampras.