Gearing up for battle on clay

Gearing up for battle on clay


Gearing up for battle on clay

Nearly a year later, with a bottle of sparkling water in front of him and the full weight of Roland Garros no longer on his back, Roger Federer was in the same hotel in central Paris, the memories of his first French Open victory now “a slide show” in his head.

“I see pictures going by,” he said this week. “The picture of me on the knees, disbelief that I won the French right after the serve, the first moment when I kind of dropped the racket right next to me. Everything is so different from the winning pictures at other tournaments on hardcourts or grass. The orange of the clay is very vibrant, very vivid.”

Should it be surprising that the first slides in Federer’s private show do not include the gray skies and intermittent drizzle that were also part of that Sunday? Capturing the only Grand Slam singles title he lacked was one of the shining moments, perhaps the shining moment, of a career in which Federer has crunched numbers that no male tennis player may crunch again.

The former champion Andre Agassi handed Federer the Coupe des Mousquetaires and told him it was destiny. Federer, a frustrated finalist on three previous occasions in Paris, was inclined to agree and celebrated by partying until early morning, then sleeping with the cup on his bedside table. But what do you do after destiny?

The answer is defend your title, beginning Sunday, and defend it as an underdog, considering that Federer’s friendly archrival Rafael Nadal has resumed playing like a clay-court heavyweight after leaving the door ajar for Federer in Paris last year with his shocking loss to Robin Soderling in the fourth round.

“It feels great to have won the French,” Federer said. “But then at the same time, there’s pressure again, having to prove yourself. Can you defend the title for the first time? It’s something I know is very hard to do especially with Rafa playing so well, the uncertainty of the draws. And I know how hard it was last year to win.”

Winning has been hard of late for Federer in general. He holds three of the four Grand Slam singles titles and he began this season by winning the Australian Open in style. But a lung infection struck his young twin daughters and then his wife, Mirka, who spent three days in the hospital. Finally, it hit Federer, too, and kept him off the practice court for more than a month and away from the ATP Tour for six weeks.

Federer said he had been healthy since his return in March, but he has not won any of the five tournaments he has played. He does appear to be working his way into more familiar form and came close to the trophy last weekend in Madrid, where he was beaten in two tight sets by Nadal.

It was their first match in a year, and though Federer now finds himself trailing Nadal, 14-7, in their career series, he said he smiled to himself during the match at times as he reacquainted himself with Nadal’s game and patterns. “I was thinking: Oh yeah, that’s right. Now I remember his forehand inside out or now I remember his backhand crosscourt on the back foot,” Federer said.

He remains convinced that the extended respite from their rivalry, however unexpected, was welcome. “I think this is definitely going to relight both our fires to play against each other even maybe more often again,” Federer said. Federer’s losses this year, which include an opening-round defeat to Ernests Gulbis in Rome and a semifinal loss to Nadal’s Spanish compatriot Albert Montanes in Estoril, Portugal, had people like the French player Gilles Simon, wondering aloud about Federer’s motivation. But his minislump has not set alarm bells ringing nearly as loudly as they did last spring. That is partly because the chattering classes remember what he did after they started chattering about the end of his era. But Federer, who insists that the fire still burns within, said he had still been surprised by the tone of some questions, even if he considers them “a quiet compliment.” “Negativity enters the press room very quickly for some reason, even with me,” he said. “You think you’ve proven yourself so many times, and you can’t lose your best game in three weeks. It just doesn’t happen to a tennis player.”

He is also well aware that negativity in the news media room is a relative term at a time when his friend Tiger Woods has had to deal with scrutiny worldwide because of a sex scandal. Federer is that increasingly rare sports superstar with a sterling image (he even signs autographs).

He said he had tried to reach out to Woods, but that it had been difficult. “I’m looking forward to seeing Tiger again; I haven’t seen him in a while,” Federer said. “I’m happy he went back to play again. I think it’s just nice for people to see him in golf gear and not in a suit and stuff.”

For now, Federer, who will turn 29 in August, plans to be in tennis gear past the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Team Federer has changed for good with his identical twin daughters, nearly 10 months old, now crawling around airport terminals and hotel rooms. But the new father sounds delighted with the new logistics and, despite all the changes in his private life, he remains No. 1 at work and is guaranteed to remain so if he reaches the semifinals at Roland Garros.

That would allow him to crunch another historic number by tying Pete Sampras’ career record of 286 total weeks at No. 1. Federer, he of the unprecedented 23 straight Grand Slam semifinals and 16 Grand Slam singles titles, hardly sounded blase about the prospect in Paris. “As much as I like Pete and as much respect as I have for him, that would be something incredible because for me No. 1 in the world is something mystical,” he said.

Christopher Clarey
New York Times News Service

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