The Takedown

How did Rafael Nadal humble the great Roger Federer and take his No. 1 ranking? It wasn’t a simple triumph of will or youth or brute strength. It was the tennis, stupid.

  1. The number that best summed up Roger Federer in his prime? There are plenty to choose from: the record 237 consecutive weeks at No. 1, the 13 major titles, the 10 straight Grand Slam finals and 19 straight semifinals. But let's try this number: zero. Because the most astonishing thing about Federer's four-year run atop pro tennis, from February 2004 to August 2008, may be the difference between his exalted estimation of his own skills and what he actually did. There was none.

    For those inclined to deflate the self-adoring, though, Federer didn't present an easy target. His offhand tone imbued the most conceited comments—from the frequent "I was always so talented" to this reading of the crowd at his 2007 U.S. Open matches: "I have the feeling they're watching greatness"—with genial detachment. Hearing Federer speak of himself was like listening to a professor describe, while paring his fingernails, the work of his most brilliant student.

    And even if some were irked by such statements...

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