Farewell, Federer

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60611365PARIS — It was a foregone conclusion. Just put a stamp on it.  Mail it in. The French Open was merely a formality, a matter of playing through six preliminary rounds — ho-hum — so we could get to the main event all of tennis was expecting, was waiting for, was entitled to.

After all, since ’05, for five glorious years, men’s tennis has been about one curious word — “duopoly.” That would be the duo-dominance of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Never before in tennis (not even during the sweet years of Martina Navratilova vs. Chris Evert), and perhaps never in major sports itself, has there been such dominance by two individual athletes. Between them, Roger and Rafa have collected 22 Slams, met time and again in finals and camped out atop the rankings for years. The rivalry gave sizzle to the game. Tune in on the final Sunday and you should get some sparkling fireworks. Plus, there was that little matter of Federer’s astounding mark of reaching 23 straight Slam semis, a mark some say is the best in sports history, better even than Joe DiMaggio‘s 56-game hitting streak.

So let’s just clear the table and get down to business.

Certainly, said the sages at Roland Garros, the tall, laconic Robin Soderling would hardly derail the Fed Express. No offense, but his harshest critics say he’s been a Swedish meatball to Fed’s alpine peak. Twelve times they’ve played, and Roger has always prevailed. This wasn’t exactly Vitas Gerulaitis famously explaining (after he finally beat Bjorn Borg), “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.” Still, in their 12 matches, Soderling claimed but two sets and was spanked by Fed in four big-stage tournaments in the last 13 months – Madrid ’09, last year’s Roland Garros final and at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

So it was hardly surprising that Federer came out of the gates and collected the first set of their quarterfinal 6-3. But Soderling’s game is not your grandfather’s clay-court game, the same old run-and-retrieve defensive fare that Fed recently bashed.

“On clay,” said Roger in May, “you don’t need a volley or a serve. You just need legs, an incredible forehand and backhand, and to run after every ball…On clay you can be competitive even with a very incomplete game.”

But on this day it was Federer, not Soderling, who looked incomplete.When he wasn’t unleashing monster serves that found the corners, he stood  erect, a huge distinctive backstroke in place and stepped in to fearlessly blast fierce (loop-free) laser beams that opened the court, or better yet, were outright winners. He found angles and, equally important, a winning persona.

Sure, he’s won 16 less Slams then Roger. But on this day, the No. 5 seed was clearly not fazed by the underachiever label that  had endured until a year ago. Instead, we saw a defiant man ignoring the traditional defend first and run all day tenets of clay-court ball; defying the temptations to be thrown off by distractions beyond his grasp; defying a Federer-loving French throng which bristled (“how dare you”) every time the Swede challenged a line call in the Parisian dust.

Instead, on this gray, grim day, we saw the man who’s the only soul to ever bring down Nadal at Roland Garros, a player who walks to his own drumbeat, who worries little about gaining locker room buddies.  Returning Federer’s serves for outright winners, pumping his fist with a confidence bordering on cockiness, he gazed with a this-is-my-day/my-court glare at his coach Magnus Norman.

As for Federer, he recently claimed that his backhand can no longer be overwhelmed on clay. Today, it wavered. The man who punishes short balls better than any other, saw short forehands fly wild. The stadium — animated but half empty due to repeated rain delays — murmured in disbelief, while Roger’s befuddled dad (in his usual red cap) couldn’t subdue his angst.

Then again, throughout much of the long clay-court season, in which Roger suffered losses to Ernests Gulbis, Albert Montanes and Nadal, he never seemed to be in gear.

Still, there’s a reason Fed is Fed. The man has an uncanny inner-Houdini that has enabled him to escape many a straight jacket his foes have tried to impose. Just ask Tommy Haas or Juan Martin del Potro, who last year walked off Court Centrale asking, “How’d it get away.”

So when Federer held set point in the third, he ran far off court to retrieve a Soldering overhead and slammed a wicked, twisting overhead on the run that was certainly dipping in. Had the Swede himself not hit an athletic backhand overhead winner of his own, Fed’s shot would have long been celebrated as one of the most magical in memory.

What if?

What if conditions were more benign? What if the Swiss touch-meister didn’t dump dropshots into the net? What if Fed could have undone the lockstep pattern of not been able to challenge Soderling’s serve, while laboring hard on his own.  But all things must past. Since ’04, when Federer last lost at a Slam before the semis (to Guga Kuerten at Roland Garros), billions have been born — including Roger’s twin daughters. Now 28, Fed’s done it all.

Yes, it would be nice to have an Olympic singles gold.  And a Davis Cup title for Heidi-land would seem appropriate.  But the man has climbed every mountain, has been celebrated in every corner of the world (including at a snazzy ITF dinner which, amazingly, Roger dropped in on just after his loss). He loves the game, the money, the trappings. He almost certainly will not follow the example of Borg and retire before his time.

Still, in a young man’s game, one asks, does the fire still burn fierce. Less than a week ago, The Tennis Channel asked Roger what his goals were in the game. He replied, “Fun…I make fun for myself.”

Then, when he finally came into his post-match press conference (he played cards at length while waiting for a mandatory drug test), he began by shrugging off any sense of somber loss. “I’m disappointed to a certain degree,” he explained.  “[Streaks] all come to an end at some stage. You hope they don’t happen, but they do.”

He continued, saying, “You just take defeat as it is. You don’t think of the consequences. I guess I’m disappointed…It’s more the disappointment of having maybe not delivered…You move onto the grass and forget a little bit…Don’t look too deep into why I lost today.”

A man of abiding pride and ample wry humor, he has an adept penchant for deflecting the pain of defeat. No wonder he promptly reminded the media that he still has the record for consecutive quarterfinals.

That must be some consolation.