SPORTS

One More Court to Conquer-Can Roger Federer Avoid Getting Fried in France Again?

05 17, 2007



The #1 tennis player in the world is en route to eclipsing every racket whacking record in the book. In the process Federer’s fireplace mantle is beginning to resemble a ritzy funeral home display case, lined end to end with an ever growing collection of polished goblets of Grand Slam glory filled with the metaphorical ashes of his hapless centre court victims.

The smooth hitting Swiss superstar who combines a brain surgeon’s precision with groundstrokes that resonate with symphonic grace (cut the volume, cue Beethoven’s Ode de Joy) has a tendency to blow his opponents’ minds. Awesome-struck, Andre Agassi became a believer after losing his first match to Federer in November of 2003 in the finals of the Tennis Masters Cup in Houston. “This kid is a genius. He's going to change our game,'' Agassi presciently predicted after receiving a 6-3, 6-0, 6-4 thumping.

The Federer express has since picked up four consecutive Wimbledon championships, three consecutive U.S. Opens, and three of the last four Australian Opens. With ten slam titles firmly under his headband Federer is just one slam away from tying tennis legends Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg, and only four shy of matching all-time leader Peter Sampras. He’s also given the Roget’s thesaurus just cause to consider adding “Federer” as a synonym for “dominant” this past February when his throne run as World No.1 surpassed Jimmy Connors record reign of 160 consecutive weeks atop of the Men’s rankings.

Holding Court
Federer doesn’t just demolish his opponents, he also bakes their egos to a crisp. The 2006 Golden Bagel Award winner, an honor bestowed upon the player who delivers the most bagels (sets one by 6-0) in a season, regularly serves up a slaughter. Federer doled out the dough on 18 occasions last year—up from the 11 bagels he bagged in 2004, the last time he won the award.

At 25 and operating at the peak of his physical powers there aren’t too many more peaks for Roger to climb. Even if Federer slows his tournament tackling pace, he is only a year or two away from being formally anointed a title many in the media have already prematurely tattooed on his forehead: “best tennis player ever.”

"Of course I have clearly earned the praise and all that, but at times I wish people gave me a bit more time and said, 'OK, you do great stuff, etcetera, records, etcetera, but we will only evaluate you after the end of your career and only then look at whether you
really were the best or even came close,'" Federer bemoaned in an interview with the German press agency DPA in March.

“One must always look at the game this way - if I stopped (playing) now, would I be the best player of all time? No, not a chance."

Roger Has a Point
Artful Roger, as precise at painting the lines as Swiss clockwork has shown he too can have a bad day. Federer’s human side surfaced during his first match at Indian Wells in March denying his quest for his 42nd straight ATP Tour win which would put him just four tourneys’ shy of Guillermo Vila’s record streak. Ironically Federer not only fell to an Argentinean but one who was actually named after Vila. 29-year-old Guillermo Canas dismantled the Swiss superstar 7-5, 6-2 in the first round of the tournament.

"He played very well,'' Federer said after the match. "I missed my chances, and I paid the price later on. Today was just a grind for me from the start. I was struggling.''

It was Federer’s first loss since falling to Andy Murray in the second round of the ATP Masters Series Cincinnati event in August of 2006 and a reminder that Rocket Roger can be defused. Riding high on the momentum Canas trumped Federer again a couple weeks later in a rematch at the Sony Ericsson Open.

Clay Kryptonite
Though he has come close, Roger Federer has yet to triumph on the scorching hot clay courts of Roland Garros. He may rule the rebound ace surfaces at Melbourne, the blue hardcourts at Flushing Meadows, and the lawns of the All England Club but Paris has here-to-now proven Federer’s Waterloo. In 2005 Federer fell to the prince of clay, Rafael Nadal, in the French Open semi-finals 6-3 4-6 6-4 6-3 and in 2006 Nadal again proved his undoing, this time in the Final 1-6 6-1 6-4 7-6(4).

“I tried. All I can do is try. I left everything I have out there ... he makes it tough, and I guess in the end, he deserved to win" Federer conceded in the throes of defeat after the final at Roland Garros last year.

Federer fans will look at their man’s quest to complete his grand slam collection and see progress. After all, he did improve year-over year advancing from the semis to reach the final and as the sports cliché goes you have to get there before you can win. If you fall in this camp you may want to re-examine the scoresheets of these tennis titans last few tete-a-tetes.

Out-dueling the spry Majorcan marvel five years his junior, a relentless shot retriever whose fighting spirit never quits won’t be as simple as ‘third time’s the charm.’ At press time Nadal leads their head-to-head confrontations 6-3 and the Spaniard is a pitch perfect 14-0 in French Open play.

There is also Nadal’s natural born advantage. The southpaw’s trademark shot is a wicked crosscourt forehand that bounces devastatingly high on Federer’s backhand side forcing him onto the defensive. While in theory playing with the opposite hand of his opponent allows Federer to wreak the same havoc on Nadal’s weaker flank, doing so in practice requires an adjustment for Federer because there are very few lefty’s on the ATP Tour and he has become accustomed to hammering righthanders’ backhand sides.

So forget all about Federer’s intimidation factor if they meet again in Paris. Before even facing one of his 120 mph serves Fed’s “nobody can beat me” gameface is all it takes to sweat even the game’s hardest hitters. To paraphrase Andy Roddick, ‘if you throw the kitchen sink at Federer, he’ll do you one better and come back with the bathtub.’’ But head games and hyperbole won’t shake Nadal’s confidence one iota. He knows Roger Federer is the best player in the world and he also knows he can beat him.

This presents an enormous metal roadblock for someone so used to shell shocking his opponents with his endless arsenal of radical slices, screaming topspins, and premeditated multi-shot gambits that would make even Bobby Fisher blush.

Federer’s ideal red-carpet path to French Open glory would be to serendipitously avoid Nadal altogether but barring an injury that is a very unlikely scenario. For Federer to neutralize Nadal at Roland Garros this year he is simply going to have to find another gear in order to persevere in the clutch and overcome the energy sapping powers of the French Open’s sticky crushed red brick surface which is all the more debilitating under plus-90-degree heat.

When would be winners are chased down and returned, fatigue and frustration set in threatening to crimp Federer’s finesse game, rankle his rhythm and cause the number one player in the world to get sloppy and make errors. In the last French Open a flustered Federer committed 51 unforced errors, almost double Nadal’s 28.

Federer must remain steady on his feet and temper his aggression with Sphinx-like patience. A return to the backhand corner-pinning script that earned him two match points during a fifth-set tiebreaker against Nadal at the ATP Masters Series event in Rome last year, the closest Federer’s ever come to vanquishing Rafa in a clay court duel.

If he can do it and shake the French Open toad off his back, he’ll supplant Tiger Woods as the sports world’s most complete champion. Fans certainly will be clamoring for another rematch. The heat these rivals generate in their clashes puts their blood feuds right up their with Sampras Vs. Agassi and Bjorn Borg vs John McEnroe.

Even if Roger continues to get roasted at Roland Garros for the remainder of his career his legacy will still loom larger than life in the halls of tennis greats. The list of racquet kings who never ruled in France includes luminaries Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker.

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