NEW YORK (AP) – Golfer Bobby Jones once said famously of the young Jack Nicklaus: “He plays a game with which I am not familiar.”

Andre Agassi echoed that sentiment about Roger Federer at the U.S. Open: “He plays the game in a very special way that I haven’t seen before.”

Just as Nicklaus went on to shatter all the major records in golf, so Federer might do the same in tennis.

Yet, for all Federer’s many-splendored talents and all Agassi’s lavish praise of him as the best player he’s ever faced, the 24-year-old Swiss still has far to go to surpass Pete Sampras as the career leader in Grand Slam titles – the gold standard of dominance in the sport.

With his sixth major title – back-to-back U.S. Opens, three straight Wimbledons, one Australian Open – Federer already has put himself among the elite in tennis history. He’s tied his boyhood idols, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, among Open-era players, is one behind John McEnroe and Mats Wilander, two behind Agassi, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl, and five behind Bjorn Borg.

Just to match Sampras’ record of 14 majors, though, Federer would have to average two more a year for the next four years through age 28 – or keep winning beyond an age when few players have been successful capturing Grand Slam events in the past 15 years. Sampras, who collected seven major titles by age 24, won only one after age 28 – his last U.S. Open at 31.

“I think he’s the best I’ve played against,” Agassi said of Federer. “But I also think the accomplishment of winning that many Slams requires a number of things, including a little bit of luck to make sure you’re healthy, nothing goes wrong.”

If Federer stays healthy and committed to playing in the single-minded way Sampras did during his reign, he surely would be the favorite to add more Wimbledon titles to the three straight he’s won. But will he match Borg’s five straight, or Sampras’ seven overall?

The Australian and U.S. Opens, both on hard courts, are perfectly suited to Federer’s beautifully balanced game. But there are no guarantees that he’ll blaze through all of those in the coming years. He ran into a sharp Marat Safin at this year’s Australian semifinals and could be taken down in the future by the likes of Rafael Nadal, just coming into his own at 19.

The clay courts of the French Open will always be Federer’s greatest challenge. He has the potential to win there with a style, range and temperament that suits that slow surface much more than Sampras’ did. But Nadal is the king of clay at the moment and could keep his crown for years.

Federer is certainly not lacking in confidence, but he wasn’t about to proclaim himself the best ever.

“The best player of this generation, yes,” he said. “But nowhere close to ever. Just look at the records that some guys have. I’m a little cookie.”

He’s more than a little cookie to everyone else playing right now. The No. 1 ranking, by itself, doesn’t do justice to the difference between him and his nearest rivals. Look, rather, at his tournament entry rankings points – 6,975 – compared to No. 2 Nadal’s 4,360, No. 3 Safin’s 3,255, No. 4 Andy Roddick’s 3,125 and No. 5 Lleyton Hewitt’s 3,085.

Or look at the similarly huge lead he has in the ATP Champions Race for the year-end ranking title: 1,210 points compared with Nadal’s 853, Roddick’s 548, Hewitt’s 490 and Agassi’s 455.

Federer could take a Caribbean vacation the rest of the year and still probably finish No. 1.

The women’s rankings is much closer. Kim Clijsters’ first Grand Slam title at the Open on Saturday lifted her to No. 3, within striking distance by year’s end of No. 1 Maria Sharapova and Lindsay Davenport.

Clijsters, all of 22 years old, keeps talking about retiring in a couple of years because of the wear and tear on her body and the grind of the tour. Davenport, 29, reconsidered retirement last year, and is clearly closer to the end of her career than the beginning. Sharapova, 18 and the Wimbledon winner last year, is the most likely of the young players to dominate in the future.

And what of Agassi’s future? Will he keep playing? Is there a ninth major title to be won after coming so close before losing to Federer in four sets on Sunday?

Agassi, 35, said he will decide at year’s end whether to play on, taking into consideration his fragile back, the sciatic pain he’s dealt with, and the toll traveling takes on his family life with wife Steffi Graf, their son and daughter.

“If I felt it was compromising my family too much, that would be a factor,” he said. “If I felt like, physically, I just couldn’t come out here with the hope of making the best play the best, that would be a factor.”

Agassi’s trainer and good friend, Gil Reyes, knows that Agassi will have to find ways to keep playing other than taking more cortisone shots in the spine. He had four this year, one more than is usually advised by doctors. His last shot was just before the U.S. Open. Surgery or some less invasive procedure is a possibility to repair the herniated disc or correct a condition called stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column. Former football player Joe Montana had such surgery and returned to the field within months.

“We can’t depend on the cortisone shots,” Reyes said. “There was something transitional about that period that cortisone was appropriate. We had to pull him off a career ending state of mind. It’s too fragile an option and certainly a risky option.”

Reyes said Agassi considered ending his career when the sciatica flared up in the first round of the French Open.

“Yes, it sure seemed that way,” Reyes said. “The sad fact of the matter is that, at 35, we don’t really have the luxury of healing time.”

AP-ES-09-12-05 1605EDT


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