I. The Draw
"Which one is he?"
"In the red and black. See? In the far corner."
It both is and isn't hard to tell from here that Roger Federer is on Practice Court 1 at the U.S. Open. Hard because he's so far away from the fans who gather along the fence to see him. Not at all hard because the lash of his topspin forehand is as recognizable a gesture as was ever seen in sports.
There is something liquid in that forehand, something graceful and deceptive and violent.
At rest, Federer seems, is, ordinary. Neither awkward nor fluid, he could be anyone. His dark features crowd the center of his face above that long jaw and he is neither handsome nor unattractive. Like the rest of us, he simply is. There's even something of the geek to those black socks and sneakers.
But then, that forehand.
In motion, Federer embodies the primal impulse in every one of us. He flatfoots the stroke, but rises into a small, perfect jeté when the racket meets the ball. It is an upward instant filled with contradictions, a profoundly beautiful, sneering thing, a bullfighter's veronica, a clichéd, completely original moment of melodrama that looks at once as cruel and easy as it does passionate.
He hits that forehand in the same safe and sexy way a romance novel imagines a matador slapping his mistress.
And this is what the fans have come to see.
Tennis is only as great as its greatest star. And the truth of Roger Federer the Man has long since been overwhelmed by Roger Federer the Product Line, by the four-color make-believe of his magazine layouts, by the Grand Slam commercials and the collective fantasy that class can be bought with a brand name, or that status adheres to a logo.
We're buying the wristwatch, the fragrance, the track suit -- but what we desire more than anything is that forehand.
He walks off the practice court and passes through the crowd of afternoon autograph seekers. Shoulder to shoulder, they clamor. Two women of middle age, their eyes wide behind elaborate sunglasses, turn to watch him pass. "Isn't he beautiful?" one says to the air. "Isn't he just beautiful?"
II. Nebraska, Before and After
Jack Sock is from Lincoln. Andy Roddick was born in Omaha. Jack Sock went 80-0 playing high school tennis. Andy Roddick married Brooklyn Decker. Jack Sock is 18. Andy Roddick is 29, and his sadness may be that he arrived in an age when other men defined tennis, when greatness was a kind of fascism, a tyranny of excellence that kept the merely good from the summit. He has likely climbed as high as he ever might. He was No. 1 once, and won this Open. Jack Sock is just now setting out. Roddick has won $19 million in prize money, and earned three times that in endorsements. Since turning pro, Sock has earned maybe 50 grand playing tennis.
He'll make a little more this week. Roddick has long since arrived at the place Jack Sock now dreams of going, a place that looks a lot like Times Square on New Year's Eve.
Both have big serves and big forehands. Both are tall and strong and block-jawed, as Midwestern as milk and pie, a recruiting poster for America as done by Norman Rockwell.
They played tennis the other night, and it was like something from a comic book, these two clear-eyed sons of Nebraska hitting the ball with everything they had. Boom! Bam! Pow! Sock!
Their dreams at stake, Andy Roddick won. 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.
But arriving in the history of tennis at different moments, they are two men passing on a pair of escalators. Just one is on his way up.
III. Tennis Is Not Football
Parity looks an awful lot like chaos. A parade of strangers. In golf, we've seen it since the night Tiger Woods lapsed into eclipse. What seemed for 15 years to be a dynasty of one is now an absolute democracy. Where before was an iron cult of personality, now a thousand flowers bloom, and every major tournament is a mad scramble of anonymous equals. No one dominates. And the game itself seems unmoored.
And so for tennis, too. As Serena and Venus Williams make their way off stage, who rises? Who becomes the next great women's star? Wozniacki? Ivanovic? Pennetta? Kuznetzova? Stephens? Stosur? Can one of them, or a hundred unknown others, save tennis?
Because maybe tennis needs saving. Depending upon whom you ask, tennis is less popular than ever. Or more popular than ever.
Like golf, then, and more than most sports, the fate of tennis itself seems to hang on the fate of its individual stars; our perception of its relative health dependent entirely upon each successive generation of its marquee attractions. Borg or Budge or McEnroe, Laver or Graf, Navratilova or Wade or King or Evert.
Federer. Even Federer -- despite his evident magnetism, despite his uncanny greatness and his endorsements and his millions, despite all the sex and heat and light he somehow throws with that forehand, and all the aspirational sparks he strikes among the ardent buyers of giant wristwatches -- even across the years of his Grand Slam dominance, television ratings for the U.S. Open have swooned.
Is greatness not enough? Good looks? Money? Rivalry? Does the game itself need saving? If so, who will save tennis for us all? Nadal? Novak Djokovic? Donald Young? John Isner? Jack Sock? Who will define tennis across the next decade?
Who can save the future?
Which one is he?
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.