Federer playing a different game


Ten years ago, Roger Federer arrived at the Australian Open about to become No. 1 for the first time, beginning a reign that would last for a record 237 weeks in a row and a record 302 weeks in total.

On Tuesday, when he steps on court for his first-round match at the tournament this year, he will be setting yet another record -- 57 consecutive Grand Slams played, breaking the previous mark of 56 set by Wayne Ferreira. That may be a less lofty achievement, but in the fluctuating world of tennis, it is immensely prized. While in pursuit of the record, Ferreira played Wimbledon after being carried off on a stretcher at the French Open.

Federer has not had to resort to such measures, but can now count as his own a streak that adds up to more than 14 straight years, an astonishing feat of consistency (and lack of injury) that sits well alongside his record 35 Grand Slam quarterfinals, 23 Grand Slam semifinals and 10 Grand Slam finals in a row.

It is also yet another symbol of Federer's career transitioning from one of great heights to one of great length. In the select company of champions, a few have dominated extraordinarily, and a few have endured extraordinarily. But even fewer have done both.

Federer has already played a wide cross-section of players in his career. When coming up, he faced those he had seen and admired on TV -- Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Pat Rafter, Carlos Moya, Tim Henman -- and soon outlasted them. Then he faced his contemporaries -- Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Andy Roddick -- and overwhelmingly overcame them as well. Next came a younger group -- Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. First, the task was to hold them off. Now, it is to remain competitive with them despite a wearying body and the increasing physical demands of the game.

But like all great players, Federer has had rivals not just on the court but also in the history books -- the likes of Sampras, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Bjorn Borg and increasingly Nadal. And he has fared relatively well against them, too, winning a record 17 majors, setting a new mark for No. 1 and winning all four Slams at least once. He did not manage the Grand Slam like Laver did (twice), but twice came within one match of doing so -- in 2006 and 2007, when he won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open and reached the French Open final.

Now, Federer's focus changes from reaching higher to reaching further, that is maintaining good results for a long period a la Agassi, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Ken Rosewall and Pancho Gonzales. And with that objective comes a whole new set of records to chase. Most familiar to Federer is Agassi, who returned to No. 1 at 32 years old and won the 2003 Australian Open at 33. Not only did that happen in front of a young Federer, but the 32-year-old is now going after a similar feat himself.

Jimmy Connors' record 109 titles is probably out of reach, but Federer is tied for third with John McEnroe at 77 and will be hoping to finally move ahead sooner rather than later after being stuck at that number for the past six months. Ivan Lendl, second with 94, is also well ahead, though Federer could match his record of winning a title for 14 consecutive years by lifting a trophy this year.

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