It was raining in Paris – enough to stop a tennis match, though thankfully for Roger Federer, the tennis match was already over. He sat upon the podium on center court at the French Open as though drinking in every blessed drop.
A tropical storm could have settled over Court Philippe Chatrier, and still he would have longed to stay there just a moment longer – lingering in the moment that, as much as any other in his hyperbolic career, demonstrated the genius of his craft.
At last, Roger Federer was the French Open champion – the only major he had never won, becoming the sixth man to win all four grand slam titles. In the process, he earned a spot beside Pete Sampras as the greatest champion in tennis history, winning his record-tying 14th major title.
For a man of such undoubted skill, this might have seemed a matter of patience – waiting for the opportunity that must surely come. In hindsight, that is exactly what happened, when Swede Robin Soderling – vanquisher of Rafael Nadal, Federer’s nemesis – found himself unable to cope either with Federer or the weight of history, which hung as thick over Philippe Chatrier as the persistent French mist.
He lost in three sets, 6-1, 7-6 (1), 6-4, never looking entirely confident that he was supposed to be there. He had never before made it in the second week of a grand slam event.
Yet before the tournament began, it did not seem that this conclusion was a remote possibility.
The fact that this was Federer’s fourth consecutive appearance in French Open final suggested that he was on the threshold of this most-elusive title. But the fact that he lost all three, comprehensively, to Nadal suggested that the tank-topped Spaniard was playing bouncer at the door of Federer’s destiny.
They were not merely losses. They were shock and awe in tennis shoes – annihilations that did not merely deny Federer the opportunity to hold the French Open trophy but sowed doubt into his competitive DNA.
Last year, Federer lost the title that seemed to be his by birthright – Wimbledon – to Nadal in what some call the greatest tennis match ever played. This year, he broke down in tears on the podium after losing the Australian Open final to Nadal, saying of losing yet another crucial match to Nadal: “God, it’s killing me.”
Not only was he not getting any closer to winning the French – last year he lost 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 to Nadal – but he was surrendering ground to Nadal throughout the tennis calendar. The question changed from when Federer would tie Sampras’s record of 14 major titles to if. Beside the brightness of Nadal incandescent tennis, Federer’s career seemed in twilight.
Yet for all the artistry of Federer’s tennis, the grit of his game is often overlooked, perhaps because it is so rarely accompanied by flexing biceps.
The fact is, in the horse race of men’s tennis, the Swiss thoroughbred is not built for the French Open’s clay-court track. At his best, Federer is toreador of the tennis court, disposing of his challengers with flourishes of brilliance and grace. The slow clay of Paris demands the bull – a concussive instrument that revels in the sheer physicality of the sport and rallies dozens of strokes long.
It was the inner bull that made Federer a French Open finalist – something Sampras never accomplished. It got him to his fourth consecutive French Open final Sunday, surviving two five-set matches this week. It is, in short, what has distinguished him from every other men’s tennis player who has emerged since tennis professionalized in 1968.
This Sunday, there was precious little graft needed to dispatch an overawed Soderling. The closest anyone came to unsettling Federer was the Catalonian fan who sprung onto the court and tried to fit Federer with a pointed cap. But he, too, failed, before being carted off like a rodeo calf by tournament attendants.
The only time Soderling seemed likely to get into the match – the second-set tiebreak – he never succeed in even touching the ball on Federer’s serve. Federer fired four aces on the way to winning the tiebreak, 7-1.
Now, in a single tournament, a career seemingly in decline is set for another reversal.
Federer’s best opportunity to beat Nadal head-to-head remains Wimbledon, and reports suggest Nadal could miss Wimbledon next month with a knee injury. If so, Federer would be the prohibitive favorite for a sixth Wimbledon title and record-breaking 15th major championship overall.
Such an accomplishment is a pleasant prospect for Federer, and one many might not have imagined even eight days ago. So he could be forgiven for spending a few extra moments in the Paris rain to consider it.