In A World Without Rafa

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It would have been just too chaotic. After all, if there is any tennis player who adores order it’s Roger Federer. The Swiss comes from a culture that celebrates efficiency with a wrinkle-less zeal. Helter skelter may appeal to some, but not for the flawless, calm man (who’s wife Mirka is scheduled to give birth to their first child in the “down” period after Wimbledon and before the meaty part of the hard court season). So when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pal, Tommy Haas, started to play Terminator on Court Centrale and swept to a two-set lead over Federer, Roland Garros went into shock. Not only had Federer’s magical game seem to have vanished, it appeared that the center would not hold; that three of the top four seeds would be toppled in three consecutive days.

No. 4 Novak Djokovic, who had a stellar clay-court spring, had been banished from Paris by a fine German, the 29th seed Phillip Kohlschreiber, who went on to lose to Tommy Robredo on Monday. But that was just the opening act for the biggest shock Roland Garros may have absorbed since (dare we note) the Nazis took over the place and used it as an internment camp during the war. Swede Robin Soderling’s merciless pounding of claymeister Nadal not only shook tennisdom, it opened the door wider than an Alpine valley for Federer. Rafa, who brought the Mighty Fed to tears in Melbourne, downed him in the Wimbledon dusk and humiliated him in last year’s RG final, was now out of the picture.

Halllejuah, what a relief! Now Roger might at last win the one major that had eluded him. With nasty Nadal now back lounging around his pool in Majorca, Fed might at last equal Sampras’ hallowed record of 14 majors and position himself to for a fairy tale summer: tie Sampras’ mark at RG and smash the most important record in the game on Wimbledon’s beloved Centre Court, a place he loves so dearly.

But the human mind – as we know all too well – is an inexplicable taskmaster, which inevitably can’t take too much of a good thing and invariably lets down its guard. (Recent example: right after the Houston Rockets superstar Yao Ming went down with an injury, the L.A. Lakers presumed they were home free, so they promptly stunk up the gym in their next game, before righting the ship.)

Similarly, try as he might, Federer promptly lost the first two sets to Haas. If ever there was a trap match on Court Centrale, here it was, and even the Mighty Fed, despite all his protestations, couldn’t avoid its web of expectations. With his great Spanish obstacle out of the way, Roger knew if he ever was to win RG, this would be his time.

But Haas forgot to read the stat sheets. Never mind that he was ranked 61 places below Fed, that he had lost his last seven matches to Roger or that, while Fed had reached 18 Slam finals, Haas had never achieved the honor of strutting his stuff on the final day of a major.

So on a glorious Monday before a sleepy, late arriving crowd trying to digest Nadal’s loss, Fed too took a little snooze. Spraying his usually lethal forehands, passively returning serves and offering artless drop shots, he prompted fans to ask: Where’s Roger, the sublime mover and adept decision-maker who’s blessed with the unerring ability to craft clay points? Where’s the fire?”

Haas didn’t care. This was perhaps his last chance to get a big scalp. Once No. 2 in the world, the Bollettieri Academy grad had reached the Aussie Open semis three times. But this was his moment. Playing smartly, blasting his one-handed backhand, he raced to a two set, 3-4 lead and was up a break point against The Mighty One. But then Roger did what all great champs do. He stepped up and unleashed a shot for the ages (well, at least for this day) that Haas recalled as a “precise, nice forehand inside out that almost touched the line…That’s a situation where you just have to tip your hat and say -when you go for it and you’re rewarded like that, that’s too good…That’s why he’s Roger Federer.”

Roger himself claimed his defining forehand “was my first good shot of the match…I knew the significance that shot [had], because I knew if I come out of that game I can create some opportunities later…I was able to turn around the whole match. It’s a great feeling, because I was in quite some danger right there.”

Relaxed and confident, the imposing Fed we know so well took full control, while Hass, long considered a not-quite-ready-for-primetime underachiever, exposed his great weaknesses: lack of belief and the inability to close.”

After escaping a not-so-tender trap with a 6-7, 5-7, 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 triumph (the fifth time in his career he’s come from two sets down to win), Fed mightily ‘spun’ the impact of the absence of his singular foe, claiming that Rafa’s defeat “definitely creates some mind plays…in some of the players’ minds…knowing that now their section is open. Mine hasn’t been affected in a big way because I’m on the other side of the draw.” Well, maybe not by Rafa’s loss, but he can’t be too displeased that Djokovic, who had beaten him twice this year, fell out early. Whatever, Roger – survive and play on. But we all know the whole tennis world is watching. After all, as Haas said “Pete [Sampras] is still up there [as the player of all time, but] if Roger wins here, he’s probably the greatest ever.”

So remember Roger, no pressure.

NOTE: The Air France disaster today sadly brings to mind that so many horrific occurrences seem to happen during tennis matches: the crash of the Air Swiss flight just after it left JFK airport, Katrina and the death of Princess Di during the U.S. Open, the death of John Kennedy Jr. during Davis Cup and 9/11 just after the U.S. Open.