FROM MY SEAT: Roger Dodges (Again) 

There’s a perennial discussion among local sports fans about the glaring absence when the good folks at Southwind host the region’s PGA Tour. Despite all its successes over the last decade, the FedEx St. Jude Classic — now the Stanford St. Jude Championship — has yet to attract golf’s preeminent talent and celebrity: Tiger Woods. Perhaps with the new FedEx Cup points system and the event taking place merely a week before the U.S. Open, Woods will make his Memphis debut in the near future.

But what about this week’s Regions Morgan Keegan Championships at The Racquet Club? The sad truth is that the absence of one Roger Federer — arguably as dominant on the tennis court today as Woods has ever been on the links — turns the local ATP event into a B-list audition for pretenders to the throne.

Make no mistake: Federer is Mick Jagger to the rest of the ATP Tour’s Rolling Stones (still trying to identify Keith Richards). At merely 25 years of age, Federer has 10 Grand Slam titles under his belt, and should surpass Pete Sampras’ record of 14 before the end of 2008, still well south of age 30. He’s been ranked number-one in the world three straight years and in 2006 made a mockery of the points system. (Counting up last year’s rankings, fourth-ranked James Blake had 2,530 points, Nikolay Davydenko 2,825, and Rafael Nadal 4,470. Federer’s year-end point total? 8,370.)

There was a time when The Racquet Club provided a midwinter thaw for local sports fans, and one that — before the NBA or Triple-A baseball came to town — meant big-league flavor for an otherwise minor-league sports town. Among the nine players to finish a year ranked number-one in the world between 1977 (the first year Memphis hosted its indoor championship) and 1999, every last one played Memphis at least once, and eight of these players left with at least one Memphis championship. (Mats Wilander was the only player to come up short.) But among the four men to have finished a year atop the rankings since 2000, only Andy Roddick (number-one in 2003) is a Memphis regular,

This year’s field originally had three players in the top 10: Roddick,

Blake, and Tommy Haas. (Blake had to withdraw due to an ankle injury.) It was the first time since 1996 that The Racquet Club could boast such a trio. But consider the disparity. The triumvirate that arrived 11 years ago — Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and Michael Chang — had won a combined 11 Grand Slam events. This year’s trio has won a total of one: Roddick’s 2003 U.S. Open. This has everything to do, of course, with the dominance of Roger Federer.

When a single human being has won the last four Wimbledon titles, the last three U.S. Opens, and three of the last four Australian Opens, it leaves little for the rest of the tennis-playing citizenry to celebrate. Which presents the irony of Federer’s absence in Memphis.

With the Swiss titan elsewhere, the ATP’s lesser lights have a chance to bask in championship glory and compete for a $128,000 winner’s check in front of 5,000 adoring fans at the Racquet Club’s stadium court. Over the last nine years, Memphis has crowned champion the likes of Magnus Larsson, Mark Philippoussis, Taylor Dent, Joachim Johansson, Tommy Haas, and Kenneth Carlsen. And over those nine years those six players made exactly two appearances in the year-end top-10 rankings (Haas finished 8th in 2001 and Philippoussis was 9th in 2003). Among recent Racquet Club contenders, only Roddick (the 2002 champion) is consistent top-10 material.

On the bright side, Venus Williams will bring a star attraction to this week’s women’s event — the Cellular South Cup — unlike any Memphis has seen since the ladies began playing here in 2002. Makes you wonder if our local tennis showcase might turn its profile into one where the ladies sell the tickets, while the men’s draw merely keeps the diehard fans attentive. Bottom line: until Jagger plays The Racquet Club, it’s going to be harder and harder to find satisfaction.


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