PARIS – When Roger Federer walked onto the umber-toned earthen tennis court at Roland Garros yesterday, he looked at the man accompanying him to the final and was pleased. The guy was not Rafael Nadal, who had beaten him here the last four years.
Instead he was Roger’s benefactor, the man who had removed Nadal from Federer’s path a week ago: Robin Soderling. This was something neither man had imagined when the French Open got under way. After all Soderling, a lanky, limber Swede with a scruffy mini-beard and a No. 23 ranking, had never progressed beyond the third round of a major. His first round on the outback Court 6 was, Soderling said, attended by two people: “my coach and my girlfriend.”
Federer, taking his 11th shot at dissolving his French jinx, filled every seat wherever he appeared. It was usually the principal playground where the two met for an hour and 55 minutes yesterday, and most of the 14,845 communicants were chanting “GO ROJ-JERRR!”
They and Roger got what they wanted: to share his slices of tennis history, warming them and him during a chilling, rainy, gusty matinee that ended in champagne-raising triumph, 6-1, 7-6 (7-1), 6-4. The Lord of the Swings had returned, at long last conquering the treacherous clay.
“I waited to win the French Open for so long,” Federer says. “So close, three finals. I said to myself, ‘If one day Rafa [Nadal] isn’t there, I’ll win it. And it happened. It’s an unbelievable relief.”
Thanks to the suddenly ascendant Soderling. Shouldn’t Roger remember Soderling in his will?
But nobody was going to ambush Federer in this final. He was in high heat and highest gear, as only he can be, thrashing the Swede who was competitive but deluged in a downpour of shot after magnificent shot. Winners flew, and so did Roger, quick and punishing, diverse and damaging. He had hard touch, 16 aces (most finding lines) and 7 service winners, and soft touch with five winning drop shots. His mixture of speeds kept Soderling gasping. Robin, totaling two break points, couldn’t collect, and won only one of their, scintillating double-digit exchanges.
Says he, “I was on the court with the greatest player of all time. For me, beating Nadal in a best-of-five match on clay is a great memory – nobody had ever done that. I used to say I played bad against Roger [0-10 now]. But today I learned it’s not that I played bad, but he makes me play bad. So that’s what so difficult playing against him. Impossible. Thank you Roger for showing me how to play tennis.”
Federer needed this win to rebuke the doubters. “My game left me for a while, losing the Australian to Rafa, Indian Wells to Andy Murray, Key Biscayne to Novak Djokovic But it started coming back, beating Rafa on clay two weeks ago in Madrid.”
It’s come back like a prodigal son to the feast, and the kids had better look out for Roger at Wimbledon.
He confesses being nervous throughout the match, “saying ‘What if’ all the time to myself. What if I lost this opportunity? I had to work to keep my mind on tennis.”
Surprising? But there were so many historic goodies waiting at the end of the day’s rainbow.
Playing his 19th major final, he caught up with record-holder Ivan Lendl, and should surpass it. This was his lusted-for 14th major singles title, pulling him even with another record-holder, Pete Sampras. “Pete texts me. Always wishes me well,” says Roger.
And by taking the French he becomes the new member of the exclusive saintly six. That’s the career Grand Slam club. The only guys ever to win all four majors: Englishman Fred Perry and Californian Don Budge in the 1930′s, more recently Aussies Rod Laver and Roy Emerson, plus Las Vegan Andre Agassi. Now a Swiss big cheese is anointed.
“I think it was meant to be, difficult weather like this. It was the same kind of day 10 years ago that Andre [Agassi] won here to complete his career Slam. And here was my friend, Andre, presenting me with the trophy. It seemed very fitting.”
He muses, “This title means as much to me as my first Wimbledon , maybe more. Pressure was big, people expecting me to win easily with Rafa, Djokovic and Murray losing early. But I had more tough matches than ever before – [Jose] Acasuso, four sets, could have been five, two sets down to Tommy Haas, set point against [Gael] Monfils, tight fifth set with [Juan Martin] Del Potro after being down two sets to one.
These were two long weeks, especially the second when it was if I was playing four finals – Haas, Monfils, Del Potro, Soderling.”
Shot of the tournament, he agrees, was his staggering inside-out forehand that kissed the far sideline, rescuing a third set break point from Haas. It was 3-4, 30-40. If the shot misses, Haas serves for a fourth round. Victory.
“My hopes went up when Rafa lost, but I never wish an opponent to lose. That’s not me. I have too much respect for him.”
It was a very quiet night lastnight for the Federers. He and wife Mirka did room service and watched CD’s of his last two wins over Soderling. Is that romantic or what? “I was in the zone and didn’t want to get out, didn’t want people around.”
However, there was one threatening guy in his zone, and it wasn’t Soderling. As Federer took the balls to serve at 1-2, 15-0, in the second set, an intruder joined them, leaping a sideline fence into the court. A young Spaniard whose name wasn’t released, approached Roger, wearing Swiss socks, waving a Spanish flag in his face.
“All of a sudden I saw him. That gave me a fright. I wasn’t sure what he wanted, but I didn’t panic because it happened to me at Wimbledon and Montreal.”
By then, tardily, security men tackled and removed the miscreant.
“A touch scary, yes. He threw me out of my rhythm a little bit” – something Soderling was unable to do.
Perhaps the character with the flag imagined himself a Spanish emissary to replace the missing Nadal. He obviously wanted to get close to Roger on a tennis court, but nobody can do that these days.