THE GENIUS

More than 100 successive weeks as No.1, five of the eight slams in two seasons, an incredible 24 successive final wins, 6-0 in grand slam finals and only 10 losses in 164 matches over the last two years — all just go to prove Roger Federer's mastery, writes S. RAM MAHESH

FOR someone whose uber calm and preference to "sit in a chair and look at the wine glass" might allow him to qualify for Australian citizenship, the laidbackness of the Antipodes hasn't quite dovetailed in as expected.

Sure, his fair dinkum Aussie coach Tony Roche says, "He's such a terrific bloke, he's very much an Australian in lots of ways." But, the land that hosts the first grand slam of the year, the eponymous Australian Open, has been the scene of some of Roger Federer's most cathartic moments.

There is the little matter of it being the site of one of only four losses the man, at 24 considered by many to be the greatest ever to lift a tennis racquet, suffered last year. A loss to the soul-stirring yet aggravating Russian Marat Safin in five sets of vicious, octane-fuelled ballet. A loss that Federer confessed hurt him the most.

But defeats, however heart-rending, do not to the vagaries of life measure up. During the days when the Swiss hadn't yet discovered the depths of his reserves ("I had two voices inside, the devil and the angel, and one self could not believe how stupid the other could be") or the fullest expression of his rare genius, Peter Carter taught him the essentials of growing up.

Carter — an Australian who Federer referred to as his real coach — was killed in an accident in South Africa in 2002, and the man who now has six slams was distraught. It had been on Federer's urging that Carter had undertaken the trip. In the fires of tragedy are the best wills forged, and Carter's demise began the transition from kicking-and-screaming super brat (Federer was one!) to graceful champion.

In 2003, the man from Basel travelled to Melbourne for a Davis Cup tie — the first to be played for the Peter Carter Memorial Trophy. Up two sets against Lleyton Hewitt, and serving for the match at 5-3, Federer choked. The match lost, his emotions spent, he wept.

A little over two-and-a-half years later with more than 100 successive weeks as No.1, five of the eight slams in two seasons — last managed by Rod Laver — and the transition is complete, the right of passage earned.

Other records accentuate Federer's mastery: an incredible 24 successive final wins (12 by Borg and McEnroe the previous record) before Argentine David Nalbandian snapped the streak in Shanghai at the Tennis Masters Cup; 6-0 in grand slam finals; only ten losses in 164 matches over the last two years.

Such has been Federer's dominance that Laver said, "Oh, I would be honoured to even be compared to Roger. He is such an unbelievable talent, and is capable of anything. Roger could be the greatest tennis player of all time."

That Federer is a genius is apparent to all. While McEnroe's struck you because of its incongruousness with classic technique — the open-chested single-handed backhand, the stiff-armed forehand, and the volley where the Dunlop Maxplay head dropped alarmingly below the wrist — Federer's is a genius that customises the classic and makes it aesthetic.

Indeed, it is this coalescing of tradition and singularity that throws Federer's brilliance into relief — "modern retro" he calls his "very all round style".

Consider the individual facets: His serve is a smooth confluence of an inscrutable ball toss that enables him to go out wide or up the tee, flat or with spin, with little forewarning, and a rhythmic torsion of the entire upper body.

While it's not the monster Andy Roddick has bred, Federer often out aces the American in their mis-matched meetings. He led the tour on percentage (59) of second serve points won — an area Roche believes his ward can actually improve upon. Pete Sampras's nerveless and brutal second strikes on crucial points were awash with romance, the kind he was blasphemously accused of not having.

Federer's groundstrokes are beautiful, elliptical constructions: The forehand thick with top spin — the greater of the two poisons said Andre Agassi — is the best in the game and the gossamer backhand has the worthiest of rivals. He can smoke, float or knife either stroke with subtle and varied spins. The volleys aren't yet Edbergian, but more because Federer choses to create his points from the back of the court than wander up front.

Two aspects of the fluid stroker's game that get lost in the breathlessness over his artistry are his `B' game and his movement. Agassi, who should know, said Federer has a "great hold game and a great break game". Often, the champion is able to play excellent defence, stay in the point and extricate himself from sticky situations.

His six-foot-one-inch frame also covers court unlike anything seen. Neither the sneaker-squeaking scurrying of Michael Chang nor the clay-dredging sliding of Guillermo Coria comes close. Federer just happens to be there. Every time. "Tennis is played not just with the hands but the feet, especially for Roger," said Pierre Paganini, his long-term trainer.

All this is enough to stun the senses. But factor in that Federer was without a coach in 2004, and Roche is more consultant than full-time coach, and the Swiss's record grows even more impressive. It reveals a mind that understands the game and describes it in four languages — Swiss German, German, French and English.

"I'm not a huge fan of the surface to be honest," Federer said of the Teraflex surface in Shanghai. "It makes me feel strange and just doesn't take my spin the way I would like it to."

It also reveals a mind that is fiercely independent. One that, even in this age of big management firms and PR overkill, makes its own decisions. Federer's entourage is minimal. No peroxide blondes, no shrinks, no parents. Just Mirka Vavrinec, his partner and manager, a physio and the odd friend. And Roche when he travels.

But how long can it last? Already a new generation, one that McEnroe says does not fear Federer, is reaching puberty. Rafael Nadal, muscular, left-handed and Spanish is the first of the raiders. To vanquish Federer, you need to bring something extra to the table. Nadal brought naked will and searing intensity.

In Federer's four defeats, he had match points in two (Safin and Richard Gasquet), in another he served for the match (Nalbandian), but only in one was he truly beaten.

Nadal at the French Open semi-final — a minor joust for future supremacy — was magnificent, running down everything and round-house hooking the heavy ball to Federer's backhand. The Swiss's forehand broke down, double faults materialised and Nadal came through in four.

Brit hope Andrew Murray, Federer's 2004 Athens conqueror Tomas Berdych, French wonderkinds Gael Monfils and Gasquet lie in wait. Elsewhere the old guard is bristling. Roddick is working on attacking more, Hewitt is fresh off fatherhood, and Safin is, well, just being Safin, alternating between injury and caprice.

Federer was also introduced to his worst fear — injury. An ankle sprain saw an under-par Federer at Shanghai. The ambassador of tennis that he is the Swiss played on as the other top players withdrew and Nalbandian pulled out of a fishing trip to win. McEnroe wondered if Federer had done himself more damage than good by playing.

Already Agassi has pulled out of the Australian Open; Safin and Nadal look unlikely to play and it's tempting for the engraver to start chipping out R. Federer on the trophy. The man will have none of it. Another quest begins in Melbourne, the city he is bound to, and one which will be the starting point if he indeed goes the whole hog — the inconceivable career Grand Slam.

More realistically, can he win the French this year? Or finish it at No.1 for the third consecutive year? "You can't keep it up all the time. It's too much to ask from yourself, year in year out, winning two or three slams a year like I've been," said Federer. "I expect myself not to be at the top at some point."

At least someone is keeping his head.