For a good number of years, Roger Federer was the undisputed world No1 and “best of the rest” on clay. Those days are past now, and though he made the final here the past three years, the Swiss maestro knows that he will have his work cut out if he is to conquer the one Grand Slam title which still eludes him.
Will Roger Federer ever win Roland Garros? The question is almost an answer in itself. The 27-year-old has no fewer than 13 Grand Slam titles to his legendary name, but he is certainly not the man he once was when sweeping all before him on the circuit, suffering only four defeats in total in 2005 and five in 2006. Nobody doubted at the time that he would add the one Grand Slam title that was missing from his trophy cabinet – the French Open.
And then along came Rafael Nadal, and for the past four years, Federer’s campaigns have foundered on the rocks strewn by the majestic Majorcan’s fierce topspin. Fast forward to 2009, and not only has newly-wed Federer had to give up his No1 ranking, but his holy grail seems to be slipping out of reach, as if any one is going to knock Nadal off his clay throne, it is more likely to be one of the young pretenders than the “old” master.
Plumbing the depths
In an attempt to find out where it all went wrong, June 2008 would seem to be the moment when the bubble burst. In the 2006 and 2007 French Open finals, Federer tried out various options but was forced to give best to Nadal over four sets. And then came 2008. For a man who had stood like a colossus over men’s tennis for so long, to lose 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 was a veritable slap in the face. The final set looked like a capitulation on the part of the man from Basle, but a month later, the mere scratch that was Roland Garros became a flesh wound. At the end of a final that has gone down in the annals, Roger was forced to cede his most cherished title to his nemesis as Rafa won a five-setter in the Swiss’ back garden – Wimbledon. “This is a disaster,” was Federer’s reaction as he fought back the tears.
To add to these psychological setbacks, Federer also had back problems to contend with, though when he won the US Open in September, he seemed to be gearing up for a strong end to the season. After winning his home tournament in Basle however, he withdrew from the quarter-final of the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris and was clearly not fully fit when he played the Masters Cup in Shanghai. 2009 began where 2008 left off: a painful, tearful defeat to Rafael Nadal in the final of the Australian Open and back pain which forced him out of Switzerland’s Davis Cup defeat in Birmingham, Alabama.
11 consecutive defeats
It is far too early to say that Federer’s career is in decline, but the statistics do not lie. The Dubai resident has yet to win a title in six attempts in 2009, and against the three other members of the current top four in the world (Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray), he has slipped to no fewer than 11 consecutive defeats! What seemed to be a problem with one player and one player alone now seems to be spreading. Andy Murray has beaten him four times in a row, while Novak Djokovic knocked him out at the 2009 Masters 1000 tournaments in Miami and Rome, coming from behind both times. Federer even shattered a racquet in anger in Florida – a first for the usually calm Swiss mister, and perhaps a reflection of how two of his main weapons – his service and forehand – have begun to let him down. “I don’t usually miss out on chances like that,” rued Federer after the defeat in Miami.
Is Federer tired – either physically, mentally or both – or merely going through a sticky patch? Opinion is divided, but one thing that most observers find puzzling is that the five-time Wimbledon champ still refuses to hire a full-time coach. “Regardless of who you are, all these negative questions that people keep asking time after time in press conferences end up getting to you,” said Paul Annacone, former coach of Pete Sampras, on ESPN.com.
Is Johnny Mac the man that can?
Help might be at hand from an unlikely source, with none other than John McEnroe widely quoted in the media as saying: “I would love to help Roger – I’ve got a pretty good idea of what he needs to do to beat Nadal“. Mac or no Mac, some would say that this particular ship has sailed, particularly on clay. When asked at the beginning of the season how he saw his chances of finally winning in Paris, Federer maintained that he did not have a problem with clay, merely a problem with Rafa, but his subsequent results have failed to bear this out.
Perhaps the one thing that will finally spur him on to fulfil his seemingly impossible dream is the fact that he is clearly getting tired of being asked why he cannot seem to beat Nadal on clay. Champions are a proud breed, and this could be what Roger needs to overcome the final hurdle and finally lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires…
Michael Bernstein is president of Championship Tennis Tours. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.tennistours.com.
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