Roger Federer's arms went in opposite directions, as if he were conducting a symphony. Which, in a sense, he was. On this humid November night in Houston, midway through the third set in the final of the Masters Cup, the ATP's year-end lollapalooza, Federer was playing tennis that ranged from merely sublime to absolutely perfect. Without putting too fine a point on it, the 22-year-old from Switzerland was taking the (graphite) whupping stick to his opponent, Andre Agassi.� Federer tossed the chartreuse ball into the black night. The moment the ball reached its apex, he swatted a second serve, unremarkable for its velocity but laced with all species of spin. The ball speared the center line of Agassi's service box and began kicking in the direction of Galveston. Agassi, the game's most skilled returner, blocked the ball back. Federer, carried forward by the momentum from his serve, picked the return out of the air, effortlessly flicking a backhand volley from behind the service line, and continued his anabasis toward the net. Agassi then lined up a heat-seeking backhand passing shot, the kind that usually ends points in his favor. But as the ball whistled cross-court, Federer, by now a few feet from the net, simply turned to his right and expertly knocked off a reflex volley. Now His Baldness changed tactics and unspooled a topspin lob. In the manner of Willie Mays pursuing that deep fly off Vic Wertz's bat, Federer turned to retrieve the ball, twisting his body with each step until his back faced the net. At the right nanosecond, he leaped and snapped his wrist, assaying a backhand overhead—the tennis stroke with the highest degree of difficulty. The ball howled past Agassi and crashed against the blue canopy behind the court. "Game, Federer. New balls," deadpanned the chair umpire.
It was a baroque painting of a point, four strokes by Federer that showcased the manifold qualities required to succeed at tennis's highest level: athleticism, accuracy, cunning, power, concentration. And, in his case, grace. Agassi froze, and then a look of awed resignation registered on his face. "That," he would say admiringly after the match, "was as good as it gets."
In the commentary booth, Mary Carillo, normally so glib and insightful, was at a loss for words. "Wow," she finally managed after emitting a high-pitched you-gotta-be-kidding-me giggle.
After pulling off an equivalent piece of virtuosity, many NBA players would have mugged for the courtside camera, unleashed a trash-talk soliloquy and begun an exaggerated strut downcourt. Many NFL players would have danced the most exuberant of jitterbugs, to hell with the 15-yard penalty for excessive celebrating. Many baseball players would have flicked the bat away and begun a protracted, self-congratulatory circling of the bases. Federer's reaction after completing this masterpiece? He swabbed his chin and walked to the baseline as though he had done nothing more remarkable than mailing a letter.
It was a fitting way to end 2003, the rare year in which tennis generated more light than heat. Andy Roddick became one of the few tennis prodigies to live up to his hype. With his smashmouth game and a new coach, Brad Gilbert, Roddick won the U.S. Open and finished the year atop the rankings heap. The women's No. 1, Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne, beat a legion of bigger players thanks to her ravishing one-handed backhand and her out-sized heart. Pete Sampras, arguably the greatest player ever to draw a breath, retired from the sport. His tearful farewell ceremony was a final rebuttal to the critics who had groused for years that he wasn't sufficiently emotional. Martina Navratilova, at an age (47) that often eclipsed the combined lifetime of her two opponents, won seven WTA doubles titles. Meanwhile, the usual cartoon characters who too often hijack the attention—Anna Kournikova, Damir Dokic, Richard Williams—were, mercifully, unaccounted for. Still, in the end it was Federer who played the scene-stealing role in '03.
A quick checklist: Federer's forehand is technically perfect. His one-handed backhand is pure liquid. He fires winners off both flanks with no discernible bias. He massages his volleys, pummels overheads, picks half-volleys off his shoes and guides them to nooks and crannies of the court that most other players have yet to discover. His serve is Samprasian, a silky delivery predicated more on placement than on power. He covers the court as if it were glazed.
But if he is flashy with his racket, he is a pure classicist in every other respect. Despite finishing the year ranked No. 2 and winning $4 million in prize money, he doesn't have an agent, much less an entourage. His tennis attire, a gray-and-white ensemble, hardly screams, Hey, everybody, look at me! His lone trademark is a terminally unstylish headband that resembles a tightly wrapped bandage-applied, perhaps, to prevent any of that genius from seeping out.
Like so many other prodigies, Federer has sometimes seemed as much cursed as blessed by his native gifts. For years he habitually failed to live up to expectations on the sport's grandest stages. He routinely lost in the first round of majors, most recently at the 2003 French Open. "I was mentally weak," he concedes. "I'd expect it to come maybe too easily, and when it didn't, I'd get frustrated. I'd play worse, and before I knew it, the match was over."
He finally opened the spigot of his vast potential on the lawns of Wimbledon last summer. Playing at a different level from the rest of the men, Federer ran roughshod over seven opponents, including Roddick—his likely rival for the next decade or so. ("Maybe I can play like that sometime," Roddick said of Federer's game.) When Federer lifted the trophy, he was helpless to stop a deluge of tears. He tried three times before finally mustering a victory speech. "It's so great!" he yelped between sobs.
Federer's 2003 breakthrough subjects him to a new set of expectations, of course. Given that he won tides on all four playing surfaces in '03, what is to prevent him from winning the Grand Slam—all four majors—in '04? If he continues playing at the insuperable level he achieved in Houston, why can't he make a run at Sampras's singles records? Federer shrugs it all off. "You have to be realistic," he says. "I haven't even gotten to be Number 1 yet."