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World Beater

He won 95% of his matches and opened an oceanic gap on the No. 2 player. This year Roger Federer became the MJ of tennis

ADD "LILYGILDER" to the list of phrases we use to describe Roger Federer. As if hisyear weren't already absurdly successful—the three Grand Slam titles, the 92--5match record, the record $8 million in prize money—the Swiss colossus frostedhis season on Sunday by winning the Masters Cup in Shanghai. The year-endcotillion is designed to showcase the top players in the men's game. But likevirtually every event these days it turned into the Federer Invitational.Federer's trophy for winning the event, his 12th of 2006, was a Waterfordcrystal bowl. A glass ceiling would have been more fitting. As long as Federeris in the draw, the rest of the field is playing for second place, limited intheir upward mobility.

Many stats speakto the size of Federer's empire, but none better than this: Exclude all theranking points Federer garnered at the four majors—three titles and a runner-upfinish at the French Open—and he would still be the ATP's top-ranked player for2006. What the hell, here's one more statistic: Federer's points lead is socommanding that the differential between him and No. 2 Rafael Nadal is largerthan the gap between Nadal and the 50th-ranked player, Marc Gicquel.

Therationalization in the locker room is that Federer has simply been blessed withcosmic talent: "Too good," as the U.S.'s James Blake, who capitulatedin straight sets in the Shanghai final, puts it. It's true that no word smallerthan genius describes what Federer does. He has the ability to pull off shotsand generate angles that must make his opponents feel unworthy. In Shanghai,Blake, now No. 4 in the world, played sensational tennis all week. Yet when hemet Federer in the final—he won just seven games—it seemed as though he shouldbe wearing one of those paper trainee hats.

But this was theyear Federer revealed himself as not just a singular talent. At some point inMichael Jordan's career we came to see him as something more than amagnificently skilled basketball player. We glimpsed the ambition and the poiseand the self-sufficiency and the work ethic—the alchemy that producesgreatness. Federer has reached that plane too. Of the eight players whoconverged on Shanghai, some hadn't competed in weeks and others were competingin the vaunted Masters Cup for the first time. Federer, meanwhile, had playedthree events in the last five weeks and was making his fifth appearance at theMasters. Want to guess who arrived in town first, eager to test the courtsurface and reset his internal clock?

What's more,there were times last week that Federer looked plenty mortal, not least thethree occasions during his match against Andy Roddick when he faced matchpoint. Federer came up with the proverbial goods each time and escaped with a4--6, 7--6 (8), 6--4 victory. The postmatch sentiment in the Roddick camp wasthat the gap is closing, progress is being made. But the reverse spin is thattheir man played a near-flawless match while Federer was decidedly off hisgame. And still Federer found a way to win. In some ways, that's moredemoralizing than simply being outclassed in straight sets. "A couple yearsago I would think, Oh, I don't know what to do, I don't have the key," saysFederer. "Thank God I don't [do] that anymore. Through my mental andphysical strength I was able to overcome all these problems."

In other wordsRoger is just getting the hang of this tennis thing—a scary thought consideringthat, at age 25, he's still squarely in his prime and could easily rule thesport for several more years. What will it take for someone to penetrate theFederer Glass Ceiling in 2007? For one thing, smarts. Too often players abandona sound game plan—hit high, looping topspin to Federer's backhand; take chanceson returns; take pains to disrupt the Swiss's rhythm—and attempt the fool'serrand of trying to outgun Federer. It will also take a dose of nasty: As itstands now, Federer's opponents seem afflicted by Stockholm syndrome, weirdlysympathetic to their tormentor. Too often, respect for Federer among his peersbleeds over into awe. A bit of luck wouldn't hurt either. No one wishes injuryon another, but maybe Federer could eat some bad shellfish on the eve of afinal.

Realistically,though, it's hard to see anyone mounting a sustained challenge next year.Nadal—whose results have nosedived since he was the Wimbledon runner-up—mightupend Federer on clay. And a streaky player might catch Federer on a bad dayand score an upset, as Andy Murray did in August in Cincinnati. But over thecourse of a year, the staircase dividing Federer from the rest of the fieldgets longer and longer.

Yet maybe parityis overrated. When Federer plays, we know the deal in advance. The dramadoesn't reside in the outcome of the match, it's in the ways his genius willexpress itself. Like the sold-out crowds at the Qi Zhong Tennis Center lastweek, most of us are happy to abide by those terms.

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