Sunday, June 7, 2009

Federer displays greatness in winning first Roland Garros

Roger Federer

This time, Rafael Nadal was not lying in wait in the final, but Roger Federer perhaps faced down a more formidable opponent – history.

In a remarkable performance given the weight of the occasion, Roger Federer won his record-tying 14th Grand Slam title 6-1 7-6 (1) 6-4 win over No23 seed Robin Soderling of Sweden.

In winning his first Roland Garros title, Federer achieved the one goal that had eluded him, taking the world’s most important clay court title with a sterling performance. He served as well as he ever has on red brick, nailing 16 aces including four in the critical second set tiebreak. He dominated with his forehand, moved fluidly, knifed his backhand and kept the Swede guessing all day long.

While Soderling came out of the tunnel extremely nervous, he fought hard in the last two sets but could never impose his quick-fisted style. “Every time I played Roger, after the match I always said ‘I played so bad today’. Now I learned that it's not that I played bad, he makes me play bad. So that's what's so difficult playing against him,” said Soderling, who fell to 0-10 against Federer.

The Swiss world No2 was shaking with nerves in trying to close the match out as he knew that while the champion’s cup was within his grasp, it could also be snatched from him. He stood up to be counted however, serving well enough and keeping his ground strokes true, and as he usually has throughout his storied career, he answered the call.

While Federer’s three main rivals – four-time champion Rafael Nadal, No3 Andy Murray and No4 Novak Djokovic – fell before they had a chance to tango with the great Swiss, Federer still put down strong challenges by Jose Acasuso (four sets), Tommy Haas (five sets), local favourites Paul-Henri Mathieu (four sets) and Gael Monfils (three sets), No5 Juan Martin Del Potro (five sets) and finally Soderling, who had eliminated Nadal.

The Swiss managed to clear the final hurdle even though he knew that had he failed to win the title, he would have been criticized for not taking care of business when the other elite players had been vanquished. Playing with that kind of pressure match in, match out is perhaps the hardest challenge, and Federer met it head on, using his wealth of experience and a tremendous amount of guts and variety to win the title.

“He’s never shown us with pressure that he won’t step up,” said 1999 Roland Garros champion Andre Agassi who presented Federer with the winner’s trophy. “He had to deal with this one guy named Nadal who has been his Achilles heel, but every time it was thought he would not step to the plate again or that the achievements and the records would get the better of him, he’s always risen to the occasion.”

Federer had been seriously tested this year, losing a heartbreaking final to Nadal at the Australian Open, suffering a back injury and taking losses to Murray at Doha and at Indian Wells, to Stanislas Wawrinka in Monte Carlo and to Djokovic and Miami and Rome. He returned to form in Madrid, scoring his first win over Nadal in five matches and when he arrived in Paris, he felt that he could negotiate the rough waters. He may have been roughed up along the way, but his spirit was not broken.

“That's the true test of a champion and it's so fitting that he won here,” Agassi said. “He deserved it, earned it, he's come across in a generation where he was the second greatest clay courter for five years and dominating everyone except one guy. You can call it unlucky or say he stepped up to the plate and he dealt with his challenges and achieved it.”

There were those who thought that Federer did not have a Roland Garros title in him, especially after Nadal crushed him 6-1 6-3 6-0 in last year’s final. But Federer himself never lost the faith and earlier this year took six weeks off to focus on his fitness and also put in hundreds of
practice hours on clay courts. He has improved on the surface, adding a nifty drop shot that earned him dozens of points during the tournament, and seems more confident sliding into his ground strokes.

The world No2 became only the sixth man to win all Grand Slam titles and just the second, after Agassi, to win majors on all four surfaces (both Agassi and Federer won Australian Opens on Rebound Ace before the tournament switched to a more traditional hard court two years ago). Whether he is the greatest player ever will be debated well into the next decade, but he is certainly a major part of the conversation now and at the age of 27, might well have a few more majors left in him. After all, Sampras won his 14th crown when he was 31.

Perhaps the last word should be left to Federer’s opponent on Sunday. “I’ve never played anyone playing that fast,” said Soderling. “He's a great player. He doesn't have any weaknesses at all. He really deserves to be called the best player of all time.”

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