IT'S ABOUT time that Roger Federer got the props he deserves. A week ago, he won his 12th grand slam title and fourth straight U.S. Open, beating Novak Djokovic 7-6, 7-6, 6-4.

Federer has quietly become the greatest tennis player of his generation, arguably the best ever. It's time that he be acknowledged as the most dominant professional athlete in the world.

At 26, Federer is only two wins away from Pete Sampras' record 14 grand slam singles titles and is tied with Roy Emerson in grand slam championships. Federer has won eight of the last 10 grand slam titles and twice won three straight major titles. He's been in 10 straight grand slam finals and been ranked No. 1 in the world for 188 weeks, the most for any tennis player in history.

Unfortunately, Federer is the most underrated and unappreciated athlete in sports today. He has yet to transcend tennis to become a cultural icon like Tiger Woods, Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan. Federer should be considered the greatest athlete alive today and one of the greatest of all time.

In December, Woods was named the 2006 Associated Press athlete of the year, while Dwayne Wade of the Miami Heat was named Sports Illustrated's sportsman of the year. So much for Federer winning three grand slam events.

Even Woods gets it. "What he's done in tennis, I think, is far greater than what I've done in golf," Woods told the Associated Press when he learned of his award. "He's lost what, five matches in three years? That's pretty good."

So why is Federer the Rodney Dangerfield of superstar athletes, especially in the United States? Is it because he's from Switzerland?

Part of the reason for the lack of respect for Federer is the decline of tennis as a participatory and spectator sport.

I played tennis for La Salle University in the early 1980s during the golden era of tennis popularity. Back then, you'd usually have to wait to play at an outdoor court. Nowadays, tumbleweeds ramble along empty courts.

Another reason for the lukewarm response to Federer is that he's been so dominant and hasn't had a competitive rival. Pete Sampras had Andre Agassi, Ali had Joe Frazier, Wilt Chamberlain had Bill Russell, Martina Navratilova had Chris Evert. In the '80s, people loved the rivalries between Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe.

Federer's closest competitor is clay-court specialist Rafael Nadal, who beat Federer four times last year, including in the French Open final. Federer was 91-1 against everyone else last year. A few months ago, Nadal once again beat Federer in the French Open final and gave Federer all he could handle at Wimbledon this year. Maybe a continuing great rivalry between Federer and Nadal will make people appreciate Federer even more.

Federer also comes across as a laid-back, easygoing guy. He doesn't have the fire of Agassi, the temper of McEnroe, the fist-pumping energy of Connors. Maybe he needs to start throwing racquets, cursing umpires, or a hip-hop nickname like R-Fed.

Federer seems to be a nice guy and a class act. His modesty was evident in a recent interview in Tennis magazine in which he was asked how successful he thought he would be when he first became a pro.

"I was hoping to become good," Federer said. "The dream was obviously to play Wimbledon, but I never thought I would be as good as this and dominate the sport. You can dream of winning one grand slam, if you are lucky. But to play so well - I never thought it was possible."

Federer's dominance is far more impressive than Woods' in golf since tennis is a much more athletic endeavor and players compete directly against each other instead of striving for the lowest score.

Tennis players need to be in great shape and often have to run, jump, lunge and shuffle for three straight hours. Unlike in golf, there aren't too many world-class chubby tennis players in their 40s.

So wake up, folks. We're in the midst of greatness and most of us don't realize it. Tiger's terrific, but Roger Federer should be acknowledged as the real King of the Sports Jungle. *

Larry Atkins teaches journalism at Temple and Arcadia universities. His e-mail address is larryLTatkins@aol.com.