The king of the court

DEAN McNULTY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:57 AM ET

Could Roger Federer actually be the best men's tennis player in the history of the game?

That is the topic currently being debated on the Association of Tennis Professionals tour.

With Federer scheduled to touch down in Toronto for the Rogers Cup at the Rexall Centre at York University either today or tomorrow, it's a subject that came up when polling a number of tennis greats about today's game.

There has been the general feeling that the women's tour -- with the likes of Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters and Elena Dementieva -- has outdistanced the men when it comes to glamour players.

And those same people suggest it is the fault of players like Federer, whose clinical dispatching of opponents has taken much of the drama out of the sport.

It's astounding, really, to think that Federer is being criticized for being too good.

The real issue, though, is that there are many in the tennis fraternity who expected Federer to lift the sport on his ample shoulders the way Wayne Gretzky did for hockey and Lance Armstrong did for cycling.

Ille Nastase, the one-time bad boy of tennis, said that today's players are just not as colourful as he was when he ranted and raved on tennis courts around the world.

But he hopes that Federer will lead the sport forward with sheer talent.

"Maybe Roger Federer will rescue tennis," Nastase said. "He plays like we did in the past."

Among most of the sport's elite, however, Federer has done everything that has been asked of him and more.

Sure, he's no angry young man a la John McEnroe, or petulant super star like Ivan Lendl, but the magnificence of his game has elevated him to a place where those two former stars never could reach.

"He's the most gifted player that I've ever seen in my life," McEnroe said of Federer. "I've seen a lot of people play. I've seen the (Rod) Lavers, I played against some of the great players -- the Samprases, Beckers, Connors, Borgs -- you name it. This guy could be the greatest of all time.

"He can beat half those guys with his eyes closed."

Federer's recent record speaks for itself.

He comes into the Rogers Cup as the No. 1 seed and as the No. 1 ranked player in the world.

His hold on the top spot in tennis started in February of 2004 and is now the third longest streak at No. 1 in the game's history.

Only Jimmy Connors and Lendl have had longer reigns as the top player in the world. Yet even Connors admits that Federer's game is beyond the reach of any of his contemporaries.

"In the modern game, you're either a clay-court specialist, a grass-court specialist or a hard-court specialist ... or you're Roger Federer," Connors said.

At just 24 years old, the Switzerland native already has won eight Grand Slam tennis titles and has lost only four matches in the past year -- all to Rafael Nadal, the reigning Rogers Cup champion, who he could face again in Toronto.

But it won't be on Nadal's clay court but on Federer's favourite turf that the pair -- if they meet -- will play on at the Rexall Centre.

EFFICIENT

On the way to his most recent Wimbledon title, Federer destroyed Nadal 6-0, 7-6, 6-7, 6-3 with the same efficient game that had earlier squashed Richard Gasquet, Tim Henman, Nicolas Mahut, Tomas Berdych, Mario Ancic (who was the last man to beat Federer on grass at Wimbledon in 2002), and Jonas Bjorkman.

American tennis icon Andre Agassi said that it doesn't matter what strategy you play against Federer, he will find a way to beat you.

"He's the best I've ever played against. There's nowhere to go," Agassi said. "He uses your pace against you. If you take pace off, so that he can't use your pace, he can step around and hurt you with the forehand.

"Just the amount of options he has to get around any particular stage of the match -- where maybe something's out of sync -- seems to be endless."

Federer's off-court life is mostly out of the limelight.

He works tirelessly for children's charity groups -- particularly in South Africa -- through the establishment of the Roger Federer Foundation.

After the tsunami disaster of 2004 Federer approached all of his ATP colleagues to join him in a fund-raising effort. He pledged that he would play as many matches as possible in tournaments that would turn over their profits to UNICEF relief operations.

It is that kind of character, too, that lands more plaudits on Federer from his peers.

"He's a real person. He's not an enigma," Andy Roddick said. "Off the court he's not trying to be somebody. If you met him at McDonald's and you didn't know who he was, you would have no idea that he's one of the best athletes in the world."

James Blake -- who is the fifth ranked player in the world -- said that Federer has never let his talent or success get to his head.

"He hasn't changed a bit. He hasn't been arrogant in the locker room. He never is," Blake said. "It's great to see someone that does it with class. He doesn't intentionally get in anyone's face. He doesn't put people down."


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