— There’s a lot on the line for Roger Federer in the second week at Roland Garros. If he wins this major, I’d consider him the greatest player of all time. How’s that for pressure.
Federer has never won a French Open, the only Grand Slam title that has escaped him. If he emerges the champion in Paris this fortnight, he becomes only the sixth man to have won all four majors, and it would be a historic triumph since it would tie Pete Sampras’ record for most majors won in a career (14).
With Federer’s nemesis Rafael Nadal stunningly beaten on Sunday (his first loss ever at the French Open), history awaits Federer, and his experience dwarfs that of the other men remaining, so I rate him the edge to emerge the champion on the red clay. The other players will be inspired by Nadal’s exit, but Federer knows this is the chance of a lifetime for him.
Federer will have his work cut out for him. In the Round of 16, he had to rally after dropping the first two sets to veteran Tommy Haas. So his taking the title isn’t a given. He’ll certainly have to earn it. Federer is no longer the invincible player he was a few years ago, and clay is his least favorite surface.
Federer grew up on this surface, and over the years he has mastered what it takes to win on clay. There’s a patience, a tempo, and a rhythm of playing on the dirt. It’s different from the other surfaces because of the slowness.
It’s easy to see that Federer’s game has matured on clay. His losing to Nadal the last three years in the French Open final is more than proof of that. He knows how to play on the surface, and feels very comfortable doing so.
There’s a lot that’s impressive about Federer on clay. He moves real well, displays good speed, and slides into shots comfortably. He has mobility, and a big but not monstrous serve to go with a huge forehand. He can slice shots, drop shots, and come to the net. He employs an all-court game on clay just as he does on the other surfaces. He has the talent, so from here on out, it’s all about the execution.
There isn’t anyone left in the men’s field that Federer shouldn’t have an advantage over. He’s right up there with anyone on clay. It’s just a question of his being sharp. Nadal was not sharp against Robin Soderling, and he paid the price. Federer does not want to experience the same fate. He needs his “A” game the rest of the way.
With Nadal out, Federer can’t fall into the trap of thinking ahead towards the big prize. He has to focus on one match at a time. This second week of the French Open will prove a defining part of his career. He’s 28, and might not have this kind of opportunity again. Federer is always compared to Pete Sampras, but Sampras never won the French Open. The debate that Federer is the greatest player ever would become much more in his favor if he were to leave Paris a champion.
Having won 13 Grand Slam titles, Federer is no stranger to pressure, and he has handled it marvelously. But the pressure he may feel now may be greater than any he has faced in the past. He needs to just stay in the moment. Thinking big picture will only lead to his putting more pressure on himself.
Federer must not allow himself to get caught up in how much this means. That, of course, is easier said than done. He’s not just playing to win the French Open, he’s playing for what this title would mean in the scope of his career. Deep down, he has to be feeling this may very well be the best chance he will have at capturing this major, but he can let that affect his play. So in addition to the physical challenge at Roland Garros, Federer is up against a mental challenge.
Against Haas, Federer showed why he is such a great champion. He’ll need to show that for three more matches if he is to conquer this historic challenge, and leave Paris a champion. He’s the hunted now, opponents will be gunning for him. No one knows that better than Federer. Golden opportunity knocks. Can the Swiss master answer? I believe so, and if he does, it will be great not only for him, but for tennis as well.