IT might be meagre compensation for sports fans in a football-obsessed nation should the Albicelestes _ the men in white and sky blue _ under the tutelage of the legendary Diego Maradona fail to make it to the World Cup Finals in South Africa next year. But the 20-year-old Argentine Juan Martin del Potro’s stunning five-set victory over Roger Federer may be an event of extraordinary significance, something that could be impossible to make sense of in the cacophony of the immediate present.

Only the rear-view mirror of history can help us size up the real meaning of an event of this sort. In sport, eras often end just when they appear to be at their pompous peak and new ones sneak up on us without so much as a warning.

Going into Monday’s final in New York, Federer was expected to gobble up the 6-foot-6-inch first-time Slam finalist from the small meat-packing hill town of Tandil like a shark taking care of its lunch menu. Instead, after four hours of toil, it was the great man who was left bleeding from the deep wounds inflicted by del Potro’s bullwhip-cracking forehand and monstrous serves that appeared to strike from the roof of a skyscraper.

The last time a legend of the sport looked quite as helpless _ as Federer appeared to be in the fifth set _ in the final of the U.S. Open was nine years ago when a fearless Marat Safin outplayed a tired Pete Sampras.

Has an era ended?

At that time, we found ourselves asking the very question we are tempted to pose right now. Has an era ended?

Sampras, of course, came back in 2002 to win his fifth U.S. Open title by beating his friend and archrival Andre Agassi _ a match that turned out to be his last as a professional _ even as Safin squandered his prodigious gifts like a drunken high-roller at a Las Vegas casino.

Even for members of a tribe for whom swallowing their own words is a way of life, making confident judgments of mortality is risky business _ not the least when the individual being judged is as great as Federer is.

Yet, it may not amount to sacrilege if you were to say that we may have sighted the beginning of the end of the glorious Federer era in men’s tennis. And, rather more importantly, this sighting has come towards the end of what has been quite the most extraordinary year in the career of the most successful Grand Slam champion of all times.

For, the 2009 season is not about what Federer failed to achieve _ match Bill Tilden’s 1920s record of six straight U.S. Open titles _ but about what he did accomplish.

His eyes clouded over with tears and with a lump in his throat, Federer had looked every bit a beaten man as he said, “God, it’s killing me,” during the presentation ceremony at the Rod Laver Arena after losing to Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final in Melbourne at the start of the year.

Grief-darkened view

It was the Swiss maestro’s fifth consecutive loss to the Spanish gladiator in a tournament final. At that time, the possibility of winning a record-tying 14th Major title in Paris _ not to speak of a sixth Wimbledon title and a mind-boggling 15th Grand Slam title _ might have all but disappeared from his grief-darkened view.

Even the greatest of careers have to necessarily course through capricious sport’s peaks, valleys and troughs. But when Federer broke down emotionally at Melbourne Park, even his staunchest supporters might have seen their optimism vaporised by the grim realities of life and sport.

Looking like a shorn Samson after an attack of mononucleosis early in 2008, Federer lost to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open _ his first defeat ahead of the final in 11 successive Grand Slam events _ before being outclassed and outlasted, respectively, by Nadal in the French and Wimbledon finals.

A victory over Andy Murray, a first-time Slam finalist, in New York perhaps helped restore the champion’s pride. But critics believed that his record against his Spanish nemesis had bruised Federer’s confidence badly and he would struggle to dominate the Majors again unless the psychological roadblock was removed.

Now, as the great Swiss master is perched atop Mt. Federer as the winner of an unprecedented 15 Grand Slam titles, the temptation to view this amazing feat as serendipity-aided success must be avoided.

Stirring comeback

Surely, Nadal’s early loss at the French Open and the injury _ tendinitis in both his knees _ that kept him out of the game for almost three months did provide a crack in the door for Federer to make his way through. But it is the Swiss genius’s remarkable ability to draw from a deep pool of willpower and turn a vexing challenge into a great opportunity that saw him author one of the most stirring comebacks seen in recent times.

His record of consistency in the Majors (he has made 22 successive appearances in Grand Slam semifinals), the poetic lyricism of his shotmaking and the unique blend of speed, power and versatility that characterises his game, will perhaps remain unmatched.

While Federer’s greatness is not merely about numbers, his career record is certainly awe-inspiring. Viewed through the pitilessly polished lens of time, most sporting records eventually lose their sheen. But some, like Federer’s, Bradman’s or Pele’s, turn out to be glorious exceptions.

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