For a clue to the future of men's tennis, look no further than the top three seeds at the Australian Open: Andy Roddick, Roger Federer and Juan Carlos Ferrero, who each captured their first grand slam title last year. Of the trio, it is the sublimely gifted Federer who is most hotly tipped to write himself into history as the leader of a new generation of stars.
Although Federer is ranked No 2 at the season's first grand slam, which begins here today, the Swiss Wimbledon champion is the favourite of pundits and bookmakers alike. Indeed, his most devoted fans extravagantly predict that he could win all four majors this year, as well as walking away with Olympic gold in Athens.
That is, no doubt, an unrealistic expectation for a man who had not played in the semi-final of a major before Wimbledon last year. But it is a measure of the admiration that his fluid all-court game arouses among his fellow players and past champions. Pat Rafter, who twice won the United States Open, described him recently as "the greatest, most complete player I've ever seen".
Roddick, the reigning US Open champion, said: "The guy has more natural flair and talent for the game than most - more than anybody, really. He is probably the most talented player on the planet right now."
For all the praise and plaudits, it was not until his victory over Mark Philippoussis at the All England Club last July that Federer - hailed as the next big thing in the men's game since beating Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001 - lived up to his promise. As an American tennis magazine stated on its cover early last year: "He's supposed to be the next great player. So what's he waiting for?"
A few months later, he silenced his critics as well as his fans who, perhaps, expected too much too quickly, so enamoured were they of his artistry on court, his lightness of touch, his unmatched range of strokes and combination of grace and strength.
For the 22-year-old, often described as Sampras's natural heir, 2003 was not just about winning the "holy grail" of tournaments, an achievement that reduced him to tears on Centre Court. He also picked up seven titles on four different surfaces, the first man to accomplish that feat since Sampras in 1998, and triumphed in the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Houston.
Andre Agassi, whom he defeated in straight sets in the Masters final, said afterwards: "He's as good as it gets out there." He told his victor: "You are an inspiration to watch move and play."
Now the pressure is on Federer to build on last year's success, protect his ranking points, win another grand slam crown and regain the No 1 spot that he briefly held in 2003. He has not had a good start. At the Kooyong International in Melbourne last week he was beaten in the second round by Agassi, the reigning Australian Open champion, who took less than an hour to sweep him aside.
The Swiss player's game was laced with errors and, when he was asked afterwards what displeased him about it, he replied, "Everything". As he headed towards the practice courts, he added that he fancied Agassi's chances on the Rebound Ace surface at Melbourne Park better than his own. "His hard-court record is better than mine," said Federer, who is in Australia without a coach, having sacked Peter Lundgren at the end of last year.
As an outstanding junior, Federer became world No 1 in 1998 and also won at Wimbledon that year. He moved into senior tennis with relative ease, reaching the No 29 ranking in 2000 and ending Sampras's 31-match Wimbledon winning streak the following year in one of the biggest upsets in the tournament's recent history.
But his failure to follow that up with a grand slam victory prompted questions about whether he possessed the mental strength required to become a champion. "I knew it was in me, but I didn't know what it takes," he said back then. Some still harbour doubts about his temperament. Stefan Edberg has said he could dominate the game for years provided he remains disciplined mentally and "gets things right between the ears".
One of the nicest and most down-to-earth players on the circuit, Federer is keenly aware of the intense competition that he faces - not only from the new crop of stars such as Roddick, Ferrero, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin, but also from Agassi, three times winner of the Australian Open in the past four years. The 33-year-old yesterday warned the "generation next" of men's tennis that he was not yet ready to roll over.Reuse content