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'Maestro' Federer favored in tournament



Published: Sat, August 27, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



He comes into the U.S. open with a record 22 straight tournament wins.

NEW YORK (AP) -- Everything seems to be clicking for Roger Federer.

He's won an Open-era record 22 straight finals, is 64-3 in matches this year, and has been No. 1 for 82 consecutive weeks. Some have dubbed him "The Federer Express," others "The Maestro."

Which does he prefer as he heads into the U.S. Open as the prohibitive favorite?

"Maestro is pretty cool," he said with a grin.

Federer is the odds-makers' favorite to win the Open, with Spain's Rafael Nadal and American Andy Roddick the next two choices. No. 7 Andre Agassi, the 1994 and 1999 champion, surely will be the sentimental favorite of the crowd. No one, not even Agassi, knows whether this will be his last U.S. Open.

Maria Sharapova comes into the Open as the women's top seed, but she's only the third choice among the oddsmakers behind fourth-seeded Kim Clijsters and No. 7 Justine Henin-Hardenne. Venus Williams, No. 10, is rated a better bet than her sister, No. 8 Serena, and No. 2 Lindsay Davenport.

Courts have new color

The courts at the National Tennis Center are blue now rather than green, the money is bigger than ever, and for the first time fans can keep stray balls. There's a giant new draw board with a retro, manually operated touch. All the changes are signs of tennis' fan-friendly focus and burgeoning appeal.

And personable players from around the globe, such as Federer, Nadal, Roddick and Agassi, along with Sharapova, Davenport, Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne and the Williams sisters, are building worldwide interest in a sport that has seen its share of troubled times.

Federer spoke at a dinner in the days leading up to the U.S. Open, which begins Monday, about how his life and tennis had come together in the past two years -- how it all became less of a struggle than it had been when he was younger and still throwing rackets and tantrums.

"I know what I'm sacrificing for," he said. "It makes sense to me now. I really have my life in control. Everything is pink, no, I mean, how you say, rosy."

That was a rare language mistake for Federer, who speaks English almost as fluently as he does Swiss-German, German and French.

Federer, already popular throughout Europe, is hoping to follow in the footsteps of the relatively few other European players who became equally popular in the United States -- such as Bjorn Borg, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker.

"I would like to be loved, to have fans around the world," he said. "I had a moment last year when I felt people always wanted me to lose because I was winning too much. Now I think differently about that. Maybe losing in the Australian [to Marat Safin], but fighting and fighting, showed I was human. In Paris when I lost I felt the fans were for me. Those losses were so important to me. They made a difference in how fans see me and how I see the game."

Agassi lost in the first round of the French Open when sciatic pain shot down his right leg from a herniated disc in his lower back. That injury forced him to skip Wimbledon. When he returned, after taking a cortisone shot in his spine and working harder than ever to strengthen his abdominal muscles, he won his first title in almost a year at Los Angeles. He followed that up more recently by reaching the final in Montreal before losing to Nadal.

"It took me a while after Paris to get healed up, a lot longer than I anticipated," Agassi said. "I didn't know if the summer was going to exist for me. But I've been training hard and my game came together quickly and my back's been holding up.

"If I feel that sharp pain on the court, it's impossible to play. That's what happened in Paris. I couldn't do anything. But normally the pain I live with is just during the cool down, the recovery. I don't mind a little pain in the evening after a hard day's work, to be quite honest, as long as I can go back out there the next day and be fully ready to go."




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