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Steve Flink: Federer Hits Two Milestones at Once

6/7/2009 1:00:00 PM

PARIS- As Roger Federer stood at the podium following his first tournament triumph ever at the French Open, it was somehow fitting that the man who was there beside him during this presentation ceremony was none other than Andre Agassi. It was Agassi, after all, who had completed his career Grand Slam a decade ago on the same court. When Agassi secured the crown at Roland Garros in 1999, he received the trophy from the estimable Rod Laver, who had been the last man before the American to win all four of the majors. Laver, of course, had won two Grand Slams--- realizing that phenomenal feat in 1962 and 1969. But since Laver had won his second Grand Slam in 1969, no man had achieved a career sweep of the Grand Slam events until Agassi did it.

So there was symmetry to this crucial piece of history that was not lost on any of the principals. Agassi fully understood the pride Federer felt in claiming the one significant prize that had always eluded him, just as Laver recognized why Agassi was so overcome with emotion when he was victorious here in Paris ten years ago. Remarkably, Agassi won Roland Garros on his eleventh attempt when he was 29. Federer has now come through on the same stage in his eleventh appearance as he closes in on his 28th birthday.

But the similarities do not end there. Agassi wandered in an out of all kinds of precarious corners during that event, drifting within two points of defeat before toppling the Frenchman Arnaud Clement, coming from a set, 4-1, and two breaks down to oust defending champion Carlos Moya, and rallying from two sets to love down in the final to beat Andrei Medvedev. Now let’s consider the plight of Federer in 2009. He was in a serious bind against Jose Acasuso in the second round. Acasuso wasted four set points before Federer won the first set, but then the free swinging Argentine took the second set and went ahead 5-1 in the third.

Federer saved another set point on his way back to winning that set, and escaped in four tumultuous sets. He then was down two sets to love against Tommy Haas and was at 3-4 and break point down before he unleashed an inside-out forehand winner. Federer manufactured a five set comeback to oust the German, who unfortunately has made a career habit out of finding ways to lose matches he should win. In any case, after a straight set win over Gael Monfils, Federer was pushed close to his outer limits before rallying from two sets to one down to beat an inspired Juan Martin Del Potro in the semifinals.

Given the depth of Federer’s problems, many authorities believed he could be in for a trying afternoon against Robin Soderling. Not only had Soderling astounded the tennis world with his four set victory over Rafael Nadal--- handing the four time champion his first loss ever at Roland Garros--- but he had also accounted for No. 14 seed David Ferrer, No. 10 Nikolay Davydenko and No. 12 Fernando Gonzalez in his stirring run to the final.

Soderling had displayed immense heart and willpower in his semifinal victory over Gonzalez. After squandering two sets to love lead, he had fallen behind 4-1 in the fifth set before striking back audaciously to collect five games in a row for the triumph. Here was a man who had played 21 major events prior to Roland Garros, and he had never advanced beyond the third round. But this time, he had played with a blend of power and consistency we had never seen from him before, and had made his boosters think that this was his time of destiny rather than Federer’s.

And yet, at the outset of the championship match, two things were strikingly apparent: Federer was poised, purposeful, and seemingly devoid of the nerves he had exhibited in so many of his other contests. He looked a good deal more like the old Roger Federer, the man who once ruled the world of tennis so majestically. And on the other side of the net, Soderling was something of a basket case. He was clearly stricken by nerves, his movement impaired by his psyche, his strokes lacking accuracy, his serve entirely predictable and poorly located.

As a result, Federer--- who had been down a set in three of his matches, who had twice come perilously close to losing other opening sets—was able to move swiftly and comfortably through the first set. Federer was picking Soderling’s serve with uncanny ease, making deep returns, exploiting his overanxious adversary to the hilt.  Soderling double faulted at 30-40 to lose his serve in the first game of the match, and Federer raced to 4-0 at the cost of only five points

Federer’s timing and execution were sweet and absolutely sound, while Soderling was not generating anything like the pace he had exhibited all through the tournament. Federer, meanwhile, was serving magnificently. His motion was fluid, his accuracy was unassailable, his variation impeccable. Soderling needed to counter that with some potent and effective serving of his own, but he failed miserably in that department. He lost his serve three times in an abysmal opening set. Most telling of all was that Soderling won only 53% of his first serve points in that set as he failed time and again to prevent Federer from blocking back deep returns.

Soderling relaxed more in the second set, and gave himself a chance at last. He won 70% of his first serve points and 66% of his second serve points, creating openings to come forward off shorter returns from Federer, and giving himself the opportunity to crack his inside-out forehand with more authority. Soderling held throughout that second set, but Federer remained confident and in command on his own delivery. Federer conceded only six points in six service games on his way to the second set tie-break.

In the tie-break, Federer stepped up with aplomb. He took that sequence 7-1. On all four points he served, Federer released aces. A brilliant serve down the T made it 1-0 for Federer. After getting the mini-break for 2-1, Federer aced Soderling wide to the backhand, and then aced him again down the T to make it 4-1. After advancing to 6-1, he sent out one last ace for good measure, this one wide to the backhand again. That was nothing less than a statement from a champion. He had brought out his best when it really mattered; Soderling’s one and only chance was to make it through that tie-break, and Federer had firmly denied the Swede that opportunity. It was an outstanding performance from a man who is 252-132 in tie-breaks over the course of his career, and 13-4 in 2009.

On they went to the third set, which was never much in doubt.  Federer did have a few anxious moments as he edged closer and closer to simultaneously making history on two fronts. It was surely foremost on his mind that he could not only realize his great goal of securing a French Open title, but he could also join Fred Perry, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Laver and Agassi as the only men ever to win all four majors in a career, while placing himself in a tie with Pete Sampras at 14 for the most Grand Slam singles championships garnered by a man.

Federer got the early break 2-0 in the third set, but thereafter his self consciousness was evident. At 2-1, he went down break point for the first time in the match, and he was fortunate at that stage. Federer completely miss-hit a forehand that dribbled over the net and he ended up taking that point with a clean forehand winner. Federer held on from there to make it 3-1. He had little trouble in his next two service games, but when he served for the match his tension was almost palpable.

At 30-30, Federer tried a delayed serve-and-volley as Soderling’s defensive return hung in the air. But the Swiss blasted a forehand drive volley long. Federer was break point down, but Soderling helped him out with a total miss-hit off the forehand without being under duress at all. Two points later, the match was over, and Federer had his 14th victory in 19 major finals, and his first triumph in four Roland Garros championship matches. In his straight set win over Soderling, Federer won 84% of his first serve points, 66% of his second serve points, and never lost his serve.

To be sure, he got every conceivable break he needed to record this victory. Of the top four players in the world, he was the only one to reach the semifinals. That was astonishing when you consider how reliable the leading players have been all year long. It was inconceivable before the tournament commenced that Federer would not face any of his three chief adversaries. Most notably, Nadal, after another stellar clay court season including three tournament wins and one final round showing, had bowed out in the round of 16 in a three-and-a-half hour match with Soderling.

Plainly, Federer was buoyed by the departures of players who could have made his life awfully uncomfortable during this fortnight. Moreover, he created some significant difficulties on his own by playing only sporadically brilliant tennis, and often inviting danger with fits of anxiety. But, in the end, he earned his triumph, and his level of play against Soderling was better than anything he had produced across the fortnight.

So now the question begs to be asked: does Federer deserve to be considered the best player in the history of tennis? My take on that is this: since we judge the greatest players on the weight of their records, Federer has made an excellent case for himself. Sampras had a fantastic record himself, but never won the French Open. I firmly believe Sampras would have more than held his own with Federer on a head to head basis, and my view is that he at the top of his game was better than Federer at his zenith on any other surface but clay.

But Federer’s numbers now are too large to ignore. The diversity of his triumphs---- winning five Wimbledons in a row from 2003-2007, taking five U.S. Opens in a row from  2004 to 2008, finally rounding out his record with a triumph at Roland Garros--- is enough for me to say unequivocally that he is the best of all time. But the fact remains that he is not through with his career, and Nadal has some big years ahead of him as well.

As it stands now, Nadal holds a 5-2 career edge over Federer in Grand Slam finals and a 13-7 lead overall in their head-to-head series. If the Spaniard manages to keep collecting big titles, eventually wins the U.S. Open for his career Grand Slam, and ties or surpasses Federer in overall majors, then it will be time to reexamine the question of all time supremacy. In fairness to Laver, his two Grand Slams--- particularly the 1969 Slam when he had to face all of the top players--- and his distinguished record elsewhere make him a strong candidate for the best ever.

But this much is certain: Federer has taken a giant step forward into the realm of history by winning at Roland Garros. His triumph would have been all the more gratifying if he had beaten Nadal in the championship match, but Federer’s victory should not be diminished in any way by having Nadal removed from his path. It would have been interesting, too, if Federer had been confronted by Djokovic or especially Murray. But that is all incidental and unimportant. He won the premier clay court title in the game. He silenced the skeptics with not simply his shot making flamboyance, but more so his grit and his gumption.

Roger Federer is the French Open champion of 2009, and no one will ever be able to take that away from him.

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