Fourteen for Federer

16:53 Sun 07 Jun 2009
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Or, “French Open for Federer”. He defeated Robin Soderling of Sweden 6-1, 7-6 (1), 6-4 at Roland Garros today, tying Sampras’ record for career Grand Slam wins and (in my opinion) establishing himself as the greatest male tennis player of all time.

The match could not have started better for Federer, with Soderling clearly nervy—he doubled-faulted at 30-40 in the opening game to give Federer the break—and Federer playing well and calmly. He raced out to a quick 6-1 set, keeping the pressure on his opponent the entire time. Federer has always been excellent at running away with gaps like that. Of late he’s also been wont to cough them back up again, but that generally only happens against players in the top four.

Soderling improved significantly in the second set, regrouping and playing a solid game behind his serve. He gets a break point at 2-2, but can’t convert it, and Federer doesn’t give him another in the set. Soderling was in trouble a couple of times himself, but plays strongly to force the tiebreak.

Federer had taken advantage of his opponent’s inexperience with the occasion to grab the first set, but now Soderling had played himself back into contention. It was clear that if Soderling could take the tiebreak, he’d have a lot of reasons to believe, and the match could start to swing away from Federer.

I don’t remember the last time I saw a player respond so well to such an occasion over an entire tiebreaker. Federer’s two tiebreaks in the Wibledon final last year were amazing, but his play wasn’t amazing throughout them. In this one, it was. These were the seven points, server at the start of the line:

  • RF: ace, 1-0
  • RS: ace, 1-1
  • RS: Federer controls the rally and forces an error with his forehand, 2-1
  • RF: ace, 3-1
  • RF: ace, 4-1
  • RS: Soderling misses a backhand down the line, 5-1
  • RS: Federer hits a strong backhand return to force Soderling back, then hits a forehand drop shot winner, 6-1
  • RF: ace, 7-1

Four aces in four serves to win a tiebreaker is crazy. Soderling made one error, was outplayed in two rallies, and hit an ace, and those were the only times he got to touch the ball. Federer thoroughly demoralized Soderling, and in the first game of the third set, Soderling dropped his serve.

Soderling tightened up his game again, but it seemed clear that he was becoming resigned to the loss. Federer’s play started to dip a little also, and Soderling got two break points but could convert neither. The second was with Federer serving for the match at 5-4, 30-30. During that game Federer was evidently fighting with his emotions, and made a number of errors. Once Soderling missed his break chance, Federer calmed down a little and took the title.

That was his fourth consecutive French Open final, and in five years at the French he hasn’t lost to anyone except Nadal, probably the best clay-court player of all time. It was his fifth consecutive Grand Slam final, a streak that would be an Open era record except that Federer already has the all-time record of ten consecutive Grand Slam finals. By beating Gael Monfils earlier in the week he also kept his Grand Slam semifinal streak alive at twenty—which is five years.

Meanwhile, none of the rest of the top four made the semis. I made this point last Sunday, but it’s worth making again: Federer’s consistency over the last five years is simply unprecedented. It’s a complete departure from tennis history that people seem to overlook, and it should now stand out in starker relief because none of the rest of the top four, not even Nadal at what has basically been his own personal Grand Slam tournament, could make it to the semifinals.

Getting the fourteenth major title ties Sampras. With the same numbers, I put Federer ahead, but this is based partly on personal preference.

It also gets Federer the career Grand Slam, and that clearly breaks the tie with Sampras. Sampras only ever got as far as the semifinals at Roland Garros once, Federer has been there five times, with four finals and one victory. Federer already had a far superior record on clay, and this simply seals that aspect of the issue.

Federer is now also the only man apart from Andre Agassi to win Slams on the three different surfaces of grass, clay, and hardcourt. This means that Federer, who has six more Slam titles than Agassi, has to be considered the best all-surface tennis player in history.

Two arguments I’ve read against Federer are that Sampras had to face tougher opposition and that none of Sampras’ rivals had a winning head-to-head against him (unlike Federer with Nadal).

The first argument seems poor, in part because the strength of the opposition is being measured by how many Slams his opponents have won, but Federer has been so dominant since 2004 that nobody but Nadal (and Djokovic, once) have won any—essentially, it’s by no means clear that the rest of the field is weak, it’s entirely possible that both Federer and Nadal are simply that extraordinarily good.

The second argument is more interesting, and partly comes down to how you value head-to-head. Putting other considerations aside for the moment, if Federer were to win more tournaments than Nadal, but Nadal were to beat him every time they played, would that be enough to destroy Federer’s claim to greatest-of-all-time status? Is it impossible for the GOAT to have an unbeatable nemesis? I’m not sure what the answer to that questions is. However, that’s not the actual situation: Nadal does have a great head-to-head record against Federer, 13-7. But eleven of their meetings have been played on clay, with Nadal’s advantage there being 9-2. On hard courts, they’re 3-3, and on grass, Federer leads 2-1. It should also be noted that Federer is the only player to ever defeat Nadal in the final of a clay court tournament (Hamburg 2007 and Madrid 2009), and is also the player who stopped Nadal’s 81-match winning streak on clay. Given that Nadal is probably the best clay court player of all time, and that a disproportionate number of their meetings are on clay, and that this is because Nadal has not done as well as Federer on the other surfaces during their rivalry, it’s not clear to me that Nadal’s head-to-head advantage should somehow disqualify Federer.

I’m curious to see how Federer does from here. I’m sure he’s quite motivated to win Wimbledon, and must be considered a favorite, but a lapse after such a historic win is always possible. Unfortunately for the prospects of another extremely compelling final, it appears that Nadal is injured (he pulled out of Queen’s) and may not be able to defend his Wimbledon title.

If that’s true, it raises the distinct possibility that Federer could regain the number one ranking. Apparently Federer will trail Nadal by 2070 points after tomorrow, with Nadal holding 450 points from Queen’s that he’s losing and a possible 2000 from Wimbledon if he drops out, as well as 800 points from last year’s Olympics that will go away no matter what. Federer on the other hand has 450 from winning Halle, 1400 from placing second at Wimbledon, and 200 from the Olympics. If Federer wins both Halle and Wimbledon while Nadal plays neither, Federer will overtake him. If Nadal plays Wimbledon and places second to Federer, and Federer wins Halle, I think that leaves Nadal ahead by 20 ranking points.

Of course, the French Open was so full of upsets that it’s clearly premature to look that far ahead, although it’s hard to resist.

I’m extremely impressed with Federer’s win, with the matches he won along the way when clearly not playing his best. I’m also extremely impressed with his attitude, both in competition and in his press conferences. I know some people find him arrogant, but I don’t agree—I just think it’s pretty tough to figure out what the appropriate level of humility versus candor is when you really might be the best player ever in your sport. I think he’s quite gracious the vast majority of the time, and I also think that some of his lapses (like smashing his racket when his forehand disappeared against Djokovic in the Rome semifinal) just show that he has to struggle to maintain that attitude.

Besides, I think you have to admire someone who comes up with lines like this, after his close second-round match against Acasuco:

Q. Yes, but you didn’t answer. Were you a bit worried at 5-1 in the third set?

ROGER FEDERER: Yes, a bit. But I was not afraid to die, so everything was okay.
Roger Federer post-match interview, 28 May 2009, www.rolandgarros.com

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