Federer Express pickin' up steam

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Swiss mega-talent Roger Federer appears to be hitting his stride after securing a second title in three weeks. The 6-1, 177-pounder is currently a career-best fourth in the world rankings and third in the ATP Champions Race.

"The Fed" is certifiably hot right now, having won 14 of his last 15 matches, including titles in Marseille and Dubai, where he reigned supreme last week after bouncing third-seeded Czech Jiri Novak 6-1, 7-6 (7-2) in the high- profile hardcourt final. The 21-year-old star captured the crowns in Marseille and Dubai as a top seed.

"I really try to forget last year," Federer said. "It's been for me a great four weeks. Last year I had the same schedule and couldn't cope with the fatigue. In Marseille I came through as number one seed, and here (Dubai) too. It's really good for your confidence."

Federer's prowess in Dubai enabled him to corral his sixth career title, with five of the championships coming over the last 14 months.

Roger Federer
Federer has won 14 of his last 15 matches, including titles in Marseille and Dubai.
The flamboyant Swiss is a sparkling 20-4 this season and has reached at least the quarterfinals in four of his six events. He posted a semifinal finish in Rotterdam and was a quarterfinalist at the season-opening tournament in Doha. Federer also went 2-0 in singles when Switzerland bested the host Dutch in a first-round Davis Cup tie last month. His success in the Netherlands upped his career Davis Cup singles record to a stellar 12-5.

No one has ever questioned Federer's immense talent. But certain aspects of his game have been questioned, specifically mental toughness and focus. Experts started to question whether or not he would ever realize his potential due to a lack of fighting spirit. But right now it's difficult to question anything about his silky-smooth all-court game, which boasts a big serve, lethal groundstrokes and the type of athleticism that puts him among the game's best in that crucial category.

Federer, however, is still learning the nuances of the game, like figuring out how to construct a point and pace himself throughout a match.

Only Lleyton Hewitt (4,480 points), Andre Agassi (4,450) and Juan Carlos Ferrero (3,105) are ahead on the Basel native (2,730) in the world rankings, and the currently-injured Ferrero's spot is certainly attainable in the very near future. Only the Australian Open champion Agassi (235 points) and Aussie Open runner-up Rainer Schuettler (175) are ahead of the Fed (150) in the all- important Champions Race.

Federer, who is coached by former top-25 Swede Peter Lundgren, has been rocketing up the tennis charts over the last four years, as evidenced by his No. 64 finish in 1999; his No. 29 placement in 2000; his No. 13 position in 2001; and his No. 6 spot in 2002 -- all this after finishing as the world No. 1 junior in 1998. He appears to be a solid candidate for a world top-3 spot by the end of this season.

The rising Federer is helping to carry the torch for the game's young stars, as he was one of 10 players at 21 years of age or under to finish in the ATP's top 50 in '02. American Grand Slam hopeful Andy Roddick was also on the list, which was spearheaded by the world No. 1 Hewitt.

The nifty Swiss idolized Boris Becker and, to some extent, Stefan Edberg while he was growing up, and with the way he's performing right now, perhaps it won't be long before he starts hearing comparisons to those Hall-of-Famers.

The fan-favorite Federer left a calling card for 2003 by reaching the semifinals at last November's prestigious Tennis Masters Cup event in Shanghai, where he lost a marathon three-setter to the gritty Hewitt, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5. The French Open runner-up Ferrero and Novak were among the Fed's round-robin victims in China, as was 2002 Aussie Open champ Thomas Johansson.

Federer, however, needs to start flexing his muscle at the majors. After losing to Wimbledon runner-up David Nalbandian in the fourth round at January's Australian Open, the Swiss will look to redeem himself at Roland Garros in late May/early June. The Fed is an okay 24-15 lifetime at the Grand Slams, but suffered a pair of first-round shockers at last year's French Open and Wimbledon events, and was unable to get out of the fourth round at Melbourne and Flushing Meadows a year ago. He hasn't reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal since the 2001 French Open and Wimbledon tourneys, which also mark his lone major quarterfinal appearances in 15 Slam tries.

It's time for Federer to step up on the big stage (Melbourne, Paris, London and New York), and I think the Express just might be ready for that challenge.

The Fed, who currently dates WTA pro Miroslava Vavrinec (a Swiss by way of the Slovak Republic), is taking this week off as he prepares for next week's Pacific Life Open -- the first of nine Tennis Masters Series events this year. He'll surely be one of the favorites at the beautiful Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

Scott Riley
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