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Talent, emotion make for interesting champ

The notion came in hard and low, whistling across the court from some impossible angle, burying itself deep into the corner of your imagination.

Maybe, the thought whispered. Just maybe.

In a sport in need of a hero, this could be the one.

Roger Federer made you believe Sunday. He chased down all the things onlookers would have thought were out of his reach, forehands and backhands and dreams and potential, and he allowed you to think of this tournament in grand terms, after all.

With every shot, with every point, Wimbledon was not just another tournament left to just another no-name, it was a starting point for a career that will be something to see. Federer did more than win a tournament Sunday. He put a claim on tomorrow.

As a sport, tennis could use a nice conqueror, even one with a ponytail that bounces so frequently and tears that flow that freely.

It has become a mishmash of a sport, a sampler's platter of a sport. Remember golf before Tiger Woods took it over? That's tennis, a patchwork quilt of ordinary players taking turns at victory.

The last seven Grand Slams have been won by seven men, and some of them have been named Albert Costa and Juan Carlos Ferrero and Thomas Johansson. A glance at the list of recent champions looks, frankly, a lot like the starting offensive line of the Cincinnati Bengals. It's not a meal; it's the Captain's Platter.

Federer could change all of that. Really, he could.

This wasn't a drive-by victory by an unnamed assailant. Oh, make all the jokes you want about how neither a Swiss tennis player nor a Swiss bank provides the necessary interest. Talk about Federer's run-on name, and how it sounds like a Buick starting on a winter's morning. Talk about how his profile answers the question of what the child would look like if Quentin Tarantino married Gidget.


Now take a minute to marvel at the way he played.

Federer was magical. He made quick work of Mark Philippoussis, winning in straight sets. Put it this way. Philippoussis is a surfer. He knows when he has been caught up in a wave.

Federer actually won in less time than Serena Williams took the day before. Also, he showed considerably more emotion. When it was over, he sunk to his knees and wept, then broke into tears again in his news conference.

"I cannot believe it," he said. "This is really what went on through my mind. Then you see the trophy, and it's so beautiful. Gold. You know, you don't have golden trophies very often. When you look at it and you hold it you feel like "Am I dreaming? This is true right now?' "

How has this guy not won a dozen tournaments by now? He is as complete _ dare we say stylish? _ as any player on tour. His forehand is devastating. His range is expansive. He has a sneaky-fast serve. He has wonderful touch. And his return? Put this way. He ain't afraid of no ghosts.

Consider the way Federer tamed Philippoussis. Coming in, Philippoussis had served 46 aces against Andre Agassi, and 164 throughout the tournament, and the old pros were talking about how the game simply had to return to 9-inch rackets, black-and-white TV and a good five-pence cigar.

Federer barely noticed. He treated Philippoussis' serve the same way he had treated Andy Roddick's, which is to say unkindly. Cutting the ball, slicing it, moving it around, Federer actually outserved them both. He had 17 aces to Roddick's four, and 21 to Philippoussis' 14.

In other words, Scud was somewhat of a dud against Federer. Philippoussis is a nice story, a man who has returned from three knee operations, a man who spent time in a wheelchair. He has also done a good deal of growing up.

One of the local tabs ran a picture of Philippoussis during his partying days. He was standing on a table, shirtless, and his companion was a woman wearing the same outfit. The stories of the days when Philippoussis and Anna Kournikova were an item aren't hard to find.

Stripped of his serve, however, Philippoussis is just another spectator who didn't like much of what he saw.

In that manner, Philippoussis had much in common with the Aussie fans who filled Wimbledon on Sunday. Philippoussis has a Greek father and an Italian mother, and he lives near San Diego. These days, he's about as Australian as Outback Steakhouse. Still, he was born in Melbourne, and that was enough for the fans to take over Henman Hill _ and rename it Mount Philippoussis.

Sadly, they should have called it the Swiss Alps. There wasn't a lot of cheering. As one spectator put it, every time Philippoussis lost a point, he became more Greek. By the third set, they should have been serving baklava.

For some time, this has been the brand of tennis expected of Federer. His skills are well known on the tour, and when he upset Pete Sampras here two years ago, he looked ready. But Federer has struggled to keep his focus, and last year, he lasted all of one match at Wimbledon.

Even at 21, Federer had been labeled an underachiever. Some doubted if he would ever win a major tournament.

"I knew I had the game," he said. "I've always believed. But when it happens, you don't think it is possible."

After this performance, however, nothing seems beyond his reach. Five Wimbledons? Ten Grand Slams? On the other hand, most of us thought Lleyton Hewitt had staying power a year ago, and he's spent most of this Wimbledon watching his girlfriend, Kim Clijsters, from the stands.

Now, it is up to Federer to save tennis. He has the game for it. It would be nice to see him cry again.

His opponents, too.