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Is He the Greatest of All Time?
S.L. Price
June 15, 2009
Roger Federer won the French Open, completed his career Grand Slam and tied Pete Sampras's record of 14 major singles titles. Cue the debate about his place in history
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June 15, 2009

Is He The Greatest Of All Time?

Roger Federer won the French Open, completed his career Grand Slam and tied Pete Sampras's record of 14 major singles titles. Cue the debate about his place in history

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Federer spent all spring also being harried by No. 3 Andy Murray and No. 4 Novak Djokovic, who had combined for a 6--0 record against him since the U.S. Open last fall. A sore back forced Federer to take six weeks off before the early hard-court season, and his lackluster results at Indian Wells and Miami left him puzzled. "People talked a lot about me having lost [my] grip, and to some degree I guess it's true," he said after the win. "All of a sudden my game completely left me. I don't know why."

But a shocking straight-set win over an exhausted Nadal in the Madrid tune-up—Federer's first title of the year—had buoyed him heading into Paris, and when Djokovic was eliminated by Philipp Kohlschreiber during the first weekend of Roland Garros and Fernando González dispatched Murray in the quarterfinals, Federer's path to the championship suddenly looked wide open. Once past his five-set struggle against unseeded Tommy Haas in the fourth round, he surveyed a field of five men against whom he held a 38--1 record. The 23rd-ranked Söderling? Federer had played him nine times and lost only a set.

Still, Federer was troubled by lapses throughout the tournament—the most dramatic coming when he trailed fifth-ranked Juan Martín del Potro two sets to one in Friday's semis. Federer will turn 28 in August, and from his rough patches and his newfound reliance on drop shots, which he once called a sign of weakness, there emerged a vivid portrait of a genius making his inevitable deal with time. After finding his form and beating del Potro in five sets, Federer paid no more lip service to missing a chance at revenge.

"Maybe you're going to miss him," he said after his semifinal of Nadal's absence from the French final for the first time in five years, "but not me." And secretly? "I knew the day Rafa won't be in the finals I will be there, and I will win," Federer said on Sunday evening. "I knew that, and I believed in it."

Even though this might have been his last, best shot at winning the French, Federer was hardly the most nervous player in Paris. The recently crowned women's No. 1, Dinara Safina, came in desperate to justify her ranking and make up for her two previous collapses in Grand Slam finals. Instead, on the evening before Saturday's dispiriting women's final, the 23-year-old Safina was so overwhelmed by the occasion that she shut herself off from her trusted coach, Zeljko Krajan, and anyone else who tried to get her to relax.

"Straight after the semis, [Safina] was done," Krajan said after Svetlana Kuznetsova, a specialist herself in high-pressure meltdowns, cruised 6--4, 6--2 to claim the title. "She was lost in her head, and it was impossible to get to her. Before the match she could not even [eat] dinner. She had to cry for four hours. Emotionally she just collapsed."

For years Kuznetsova, the 2004 U.S. Open champion, waged her own battles with her head. Like Safina she had folded in her two previous Grand Slam finals, and she had come close to quitting tennis in '08. But last fall Kuznetsova, also 23, embraced her roots by moving back to Russia from her longtime training center in Barcelona, and it revitalized her. "I want to go out there and have fun," Kuznetsova said last Friday. The next day she proved it, capering about Court Philippe Chatrier, pounding forehands, mixing in drop shots, waiting for Safina to disintegrate. "She plays with too much pressure," Kuznetsova said after the match. "I've learned about the pressure. It's not my thing."

Still, uncertainty can creep into even the soundest mind. Last summer at the Beijing Olympics, Kuznetsova was having second thoughts about moving to Moscow; friends said she'd be distracted there. But the Russian basketball players asked if she could set up a photo for them with Federer, and Kuznetsova spoke with him for the first time. She told him how she was tired of living in Spain. "Look," Federer said, "you can only depend on yourself. If you can concentrate and live in Moscow, do this."

That Federer, who gave little credence all spring to advice that he change his game to beat back Nadal, should champion self-reliance is no shock. On Sunday, as Söderling's final forehand hit the net, Federer sank to his knees and dropped his head into his hands. But he stood up quickly, mouth trembling, and smashed a ball into the sea of cheering fans. Another rain began.

Agassi, whose own legacy had been transformed 10 years before by victory on the same court, handed Federer the trophy, and the champion held it over his head before bringing it down for a long, hard kiss. During the Swiss national anthem, tears rolled down his cheeks. "Now for the rest of my career I can play relaxed," Federer told the crowd. Then he put down the microphone and the sky opened up and the red clay turned to mud, but it felt like Paris was smiling. Roger Federer has nothing to cry about anymore.

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