HEADING INTO THE 2009 US OPEN

St. Patrick's Cathedral

St. Patrick’s Cathedral

NEW YORK – Two hands for beginners?

Absolutely, says a Swiss gentleman named Roger Federer, who has dropped by Flushing Meadows intending to renew his long-term lease on the US tennis title.

Both hands on the backhand?  No.  Roger is a slick purist whose thunderbolts  flow from either side with merely the right hand involved. But, yes, two hands on the two diapers with which he is entrusted to deal with his newly arrived twin daughters, Charlene and Myra.  Wife Mirka approves, but cautions, No drop shots, please, whenever he picks them up.

“Sure, I do diapers,” he grins broadly.  “These are modern times.  You have to join in.  I’m glad they arrived early (July 23), so I had time to get used to them in preparing for the Open.”

Celebrating its 128th birthday, the longest running among the four major championships, kicks off  Monday at The Billie – the US Tennis Center named for the goddess of the game, Billie Jean King.

Federer’s  heirs – possible US Open doubles champs in 2027 or thereabouts? – aren’t overly impressed by papa’s prowess yet.  But everybody else is as Roger pursues a sixth consecutive US Championship, reaching way way back in history to catch up with Big Bill Tilden, the lanky Philadelphian who turned on Americans to tennis.

Big Bill won six straight, climaxing in 1925, and wound up with seven altogether.  But it wasn’t about numbers then, not the fixation on records that has developed only recently.  Tilden, in the pre-jets day of less far-flung travel, held the singles majors  record  of 10 (seven US, three Wimbledons) for 37 years.  Nobody paid attention to the figures.  Big Bill was the greatest, and that was enough.  Not even when Australian farm boy Roy Emerson won his homeland and the French in 1967 to wind up with 12.

“I didn’t know there was a record, or that I even held it,” laughs Emerson, whose mark lasted 33 years.  “But then Pete Sampras began stalking me, and I got my name in the papers when he hit 13 at Wimbledon in 2000 [and went on to 14 at the US Open of 2002].  Then along came Federer, moving it up to 15 this year.  Both very deserving guys.”

Reflection of St. Patrick's

Reflection of St. Patrick’s

Maybe the jolly Roger and Little Sister Serena are silently cheering for each other to repeat as champions.  That hasn’t happened since Steffi Graf and Sampras won in 1995-96.  Like Roger, the younger Ms Williams is shooting for a triple, adding the US to her 2009 Australian and Wimbledon titles.  Although she bagged three of the four biggies in 2002, Serena seems to stall on lesser occasions.

Federer stalled briefly, muscled by Rafa Nadal in the Wimbledon final last year and the Australian final opening the current campaign.  But when Nadal’s knees stalled with tendinitis, the way was open for Federer to seize the Spaniard’s virtual possession, the French, and slip past Andy Roddick at Wimbledon.

By grabbing the French, where Federer had lost three in a row to Nadal, he joined a select fraternity of six, the only men to hold all four majors: Brit Fred Perry, Californian Don Budge, Aussies Rod Laver and Emerson plus Las Vegan Andre Agassi – he the last 10 years ago, completing his set at the French.

The pressure vanished from Roger’s shoulders when an off-key Nadal was grounded in Paris by an unlikely Swede, Robin Soderling, and he reestablished himself with a sixth Wimbledon title.

During the winter, however, doubts clung to him.  He had wept publicly on dropping the Australian final to Rafa in five arduous sets.  Scotsman Andy Murray beat him at Indian Wells, and Serb Novak Djokovic beat him at Key Biscayne.  So distressed was he that Roger smashed his racket on the court, and not with the panache of Marat Safin.  Nadal took over No. 1 the address that Roger had inhabited for a record 237 successive weeks.

But the 28-year-old Lord of the Swings is wearing the No.  1 badge again, and was impressive in winning Cincinnati in the stretch run to Flushing, eliminating two greedy 22-year-old nuisances, Murray and Djokovic.  Murray had won four straight from Roger, Djokovic two.

Still, it looks like a rough fortnight among the guys.  Though Nadal, 23, has never wowed Flushing, he’ll be driving himself ruthlessly to regain his No. 1 form.  More likely on top will be one of five potentials: Federer, Murray, Djokovic, the Argentine giant, 6-7 Juan Martin Del Potro, and the last of the native hopes Andy Roddick.

St. Patrick's Cathedral

St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Andy, discovering his best self at age 27, with that dynamite Wimbledon showdown, barely lost to Roger, 16-14 in the fifth, is the lone chance for a male citizen to carry the US.  He was the most recent champ here in 2003, though not the player he is today.  Andy stands between nirvana and a lengthening six-year guys’ drought as far as Americans are concerned.  The last such dark age (1985 – 89) was put together by Ivan Lendl’s three titles and one each for Mats Wilander and Boris Becker.  However, the US record is 12 barren years between Tony Trabert (1955) and Arthur Ashe (1968).

No such problems for the women, although Serena and Venus are the only great fright hopes on the American side.  Despite Serena’s obvious standing as best on the planet, she’s curiously No. 2 with Medusa, the women’s compiuter, behind Russian Dinara Safin, who has played and won more matches – but flopped in both her major finals, Australian to Serena, French to Svetlana Kuznetsova. Rehab that computer, ladies.

Silly to pick against ever more wizardly Federer and the fighting heart of Serena?    But, believing there are numerous startlers ahead,  I will – the hot Scot Murray and Elena Dementieva, the Russian who came within one point of taking Wimbledon from Serena.

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