NEW YORK – There might be one athlete in the world who knows exactly how Roger Federer feels as he dominates his peers and gobbles up Grand Slams, so it was fitting that Tiger Woods was sitting in his guest box Sunday for the U.S. Open final.
Federer met Woods for the first time beforehand, then apparently set out to impress the golfer, controlling every facet of play in a 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1 victory over Andy Roddick for a third major championship this year and ninth of his career.
"More and more often in the last year or so, I've been kind of compared to Tiger ... so I asked him how it was for him," Federer said. "Many things were similar. He knew exactly how I felt out on the court ... how it feels to be invincible at times."
The Swiss superstar is the first man since Ivan Lendl in 1985-87 to win three consecutive U.S. Open titles — and the only man in tennis history to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open back-to-back three years in a row.
"I played fantastic the whole way through," Federer said.
He out-aced the big-serving Roddick 17-7, compiling a 69-33 edge in winners, and making only 19 unforced errors. Federer claimed eight of the last nine games against Roddick, who won the 2003 U.S. Open but now is 1-11 against the man he once was supposed to rival for supremacy in this sport.
"Roger is at the top, and he's the only person at the top, regardless of how much people want to make rivalry comparisons and this, that and the other," Roddick said. "He's the best player in the game. There's no question in my mind or if you ask any player about that."
The No. 1-ranked Federer went 27-1 at this year's Grand Slam tournaments, the only setback coming against Rafael Nadal in the French Open final. Federer moved alone into sixth place for total major titles behind Pete Sampras' record 14.
Federer has won nine of the last 14 Grand Slam tournaments, dating to Wimbledon in 2004.
"I've been on a roll since '04, and of course I am surprised how well it went, but at the same time I know I've given myself the best possible chance," Federer said. "In the end, maybe I'm not that surprised, because the hard work is paying off."
It was a fitting conclusion to a U.S. Open that's been all about the greats of the game, beginning with the opening night ceremony to rename the tournament's site in honor of Billie Jean King. Week 1 was the Andre Agassi Farewell Show, as he played in his final tournament. And Martina Navratilova swears she's retiring for good, too, after winning mixed doubles for her 59th Grand Slam title.
"The way Roger plays the game is phenomenal," Navratilova said Sunday, when she was inducted into the U.S. Open's Court of Champions. "He's just a genius with the racket."
That's the sort of thing people have been saying about Woods for years, and Federer spoke last week about wanting to get to know his counterpart. It happened Sunday, thanks to their shared management agency.
"We've been trying to meet on several occasions. He promised me to come if I was in the finals," Federer said during the on-court trophy ceremony. "I'm happy he came. Thanks, Tiger."
Woods and Federer have much in common. Both successfully hit shots none of their foes would try, and they're at their best when it matters most: Federer is 9-for-10 in major finals, the closest equivalent in tennis to Woods' 12-0 mark when leading going into the last round of a major.
Woods and his wife sat between Federer's girlfriend and his agent. It's interesting to note who wasn't in that section: Federer's coach, Tony Roche, who prepares his pupil for this event but doesn't travel to it.
Roddick's new advisor — they're avoiding the word "coach" — is none other than five-time Open champion Jimmy Connors, of course. Connors chewed on his fingers when Roddick was having a hard time, and rocked back giddily after his charge's nice shots.
Connors has rebuilt Roddick's confidence and revamped his game, but Federer was able to come up with all of the answers, particularly in the tensest moments.
Critical tests of wills and nerves came early in the third set: Federer faced four break points but saved them all to hold for a 3-2 lead, and Roddick then successfully dealt with five break points in the very next game to make it 3-all.
"We were pretty much fighting tooth and nail," Roddick said.
But then, serving to take that set to a tiebreaker, Roddick faltered. Or better, Federer flourished, using two backhand return winners to break serve. Federer let out a scream of "Yes!" — about the only ounce of emotion he showed until falling to his back at the very end.
Overall, Federer broke six times; Roddick lost his serve a total of five times in the tournament's first six rounds combined.
Federer was beyond brilliant for the first 17 minutes, racing to a 5-0 lead with a mix of well-spun aces, curling passing shots, crisp volleys and reflex returns of Roddick's serves topping 135 mph.
When Federer hit his fourth ace at 131 mph to cap that five-game run, Roddick bowed his head and shook it.
"You don't want to get embarrassed out there, that's for sure," Roddick would say later.
Shortly thereafter, the first set was done. Federer hit a cross-court backhand passing shot that dipped as though attached to a string, and then he broke for the third time by getting back a 142 mph serve with a return so tough Roddick meekly slapped a forehand into the net.
And then, suddenly, Roddick got back into the match, breaking Federer at love to open the second set and running to the sideline with an uppercut and a yell.
The book on Roddick has been that his game is limited to two power strokes, his serve and his forehand. But in the past couple of months with Connors, the repertoire has expanded, and Roddick held his own in the second set and most of the third.
On one point, Roddick reached for a half-volley to extend the exchange, and then, with both players at the net, hit a reflex volley winner.
After speaking about the changes to his own game, Roddick was asked about whether Federer is better than when he beat Roddick in the 2004 and 2005 Wimbledon finals.
"He's improving as well," Roddick said, "which is scary."
And at match's end, Federer pulled through, Roddick merely a momentary obstacle in pursuit of Sampras.