By Christopher Clarey
Roger Federer's most intriguing season continues on Monday with a singles match in New York that won't count in the rankings but has still managed to sell out 19,000 seats in Madison Square Garden.
Federer's latest exhibition duel with the now-retired Pete Sampras is just that: an exhibition. But it comes at a particularly sensitive stage of Federer's brilliant career; one where he has looked surprisingly vulnerable to the slings, arrows and energy of the younger generation.
He has played just two tournaments in 2008 and lost twice to 20-year-olds, with Novak Djokovic manhandling him in straight sets in the semifinals of the Australian Open, and Andy Murray upsetting him in a tighter match this week in the first round in Dubai after Federer had taken a five-week break from competition.
In both defeats, Federer looked less fleet and fluid than usual and also less than convincing with his signature forehand.
Crisis? Beginning of the end of his long reign? Perhaps, but Federer, as it turns out, has not been practicing full disclosure until now.
At age 26, he has not just been struggling with young, gifted and hungry opposition. He has also been struggling with his health. Last month, after falling ill for the third time in six weeks, he underwent extensive tests in his native country of Switzerland and his part-time residence of Dubai. According to Federer, the conclusion was that he had contracted mononucleosis.
Federer already had been diagnosed with food poisoning prior to the Australian Open, which severely disrupted his preparation for that tournament, eventually won by Djokovic. But Federer, who complained of feeling sluggish during the Open, said it now appears that the mononucleosis was the more serious issue.
"The doctors said I must have had it for at least six weeks, which went all the way back to December," Federer said in a telephone interview from Dubai, explaining that he had now been medically cleared to compete.
Mononucleosis is an infection caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. It can produce flu-like symptoms and extreme, lingering fatigue. Physicians often discourage those with mononucleosis from taking part in intense physical activity because of the risk of rupturing the spleen, which can become enlarged because of the infection.
"When I heard it was mono I was actually even more happy to have made the semifinals of the Australian Open, because probably a doctor would have said. 'You're not allowed or can't play,' " Federer said.
But Federer was still quite concerned initially. He was well aware that mononucleosis forced Mario Ancic, a former top 10 player from Croatia, to miss six months of the 2007 season, including Wimbledon.
"There was a soccer player in my home club in Switzerland who was out for two years," Federer said. "You hear two years and you hear six months. So I was like, 'Oh my God.' "
Federer said he was unable to practice for about 10 days in February and received medical clearance to begin training normally five days before the tournament in Dubai began on Monday.
"They weren't sure I was over it, but now I'm creating antibodies and this really shows you are over it," he said. "But I lost a lot of fitness. I was feeling so great in December up until the moment I got sick, so this has been my problem the last couple weeks: really getting back on track. I haven't practiced and couldn't really work out the way I wanted to, because you have to be very careful with mono."
Federer said he came down with a fever in December before traveling to Australia but sought no medical treatment. After his health problems in Australia, he took a long-planned two-week break from the game, which included attending the Super Bowl in Phoenix, Arizona. But he said he soon fell ill with flu-like symptoms again and returned to Switzerland for tests.
"I had felt great the day before and then awful the next day," he said. "And this is really when I said, 'Okay, something is wrong. I have to totally check things out here.' "
Even in perfect health, this season looked like the most challenging of Federer's career with the emergence of Djokovic and with an overstuffed calendar that includes the Olympic tournament in Beijing. He is still on a quest to win his first French Open, the only Grand Slam singles title he lacks, and also will be attempting to break his tie in the record books with Bjorn Borg by winning a sixth straight Wimbledon.
Now, 2008 looks even more challenging, and it should be fine theater to see how a champion accustomed to winning big titles without much adversity will react.
"I hope I didn't lose too much energy through what I've been through the last few months, but honestly I'm still positive about it," he said. "In some ways it only makes me more motivated to lose sometimes, and now I finally have the green light and finally I can give 100 percent in practice again, because it wasn't fun sort of being there sort of halfway. I didn't enjoy that too much. But again, it was interesting and you've got to go through those moments, as well. I know that. Through a career, a long career maybe as number one, you have to go through injuries and sicknesses."
Until now, Federer has been largely spared any major health concerns and has played in 33 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments, winning 12 of them: two short of Sampras's all-time record. He won three of the four major titles in 2006 and did the same in 2007, but despite his stuttering start in 2008, he said it is too early to claim that his era of dominance is ending.
"I don't think it's fair to assess it this way," he said. "For me, it was only a matter of time before the younger guys were going to come up. Now that they're here, they're good and everything, but I'm still number one in the world.
"I think they are doing well," he added. "But I think it would be very premature, almost a little bit rude toward me because of everything I've already done over the last few years. I think it's not fair if you just say, 'The guy has lost two matches, played two tournaments and didn't win both, and it's over for him.' "
Questioned on the value of playing an exhibition, even for a huge payday, at this now-delicate stage of the season, Federer said he had no regrets and actually hoped it would give him some match practice heading into the Masters Series event in Indian Wells, California, next week. Federer agreed to the Madison Square Garden match after he and Sampras became friends while playing three exhibitions in Asia late last year, with the 36-year-old Sampras generating some unexpected buzz by winning the third contest on a very quick indoor court in Macao.
"I was only going to do this exhibition if it was going to be convenient, to be honest," Federer said. "It's on the way to Palm Springs for me. That's not a problem. After all, he's my hero. He's my idol, and he really wanted to do it in the States, and I looked at my schedule and said, 'Really the only time during the whole year is that Monday.' "
Federer said he did not mention the mononucleosis until now because he did not want to detract from Djokovic's or Murray's victories. But Federer was still criticized in the British press for being uncharitable in defeat after he commented in Dubai that Murray had not changed his game in the last two years and said he was surprised at how defensively the young Scotsman was playing.
Federer, who said he has now learned the English term "sour grapes," said he was only trying to provide "constructive criticism" and did not mean to imply that he did not respect Murray's game.
"He beat me, after all," Federer said. "It's unfortunate, because that's not what I meant at all. He's a hell of a player, and I've always thought he was one of the most talented ones of the whole group, even more talented than Djokovic, to be honest. I thought he would do the most first before Djokovic, but Djokovic played really well the last year and started this year unbelievably."
Feliciano López of Spain advanced Friday to the final of the Dubai Tennis Championships, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, defeating Nikolay Davydenko of Russia, who dropped five straight games in the third set, The Associated Press reported from the United Arab Emirates. The Russian had led the Spaniard 5-2 in the decider.
"The end of the set was a little bit crazy," López said. "Honestly, I think I was lucky. I came back, I don't know how."