PARIS: No Nadal, no excuses! Those are the words that could have haunted Roger Federer for the rest of his life if he had let the French Open crown slip from his grasp on Sunday.
Luckily for him, Swede Robin Soderling, and a miracle forehand winner in a fourth-round thriller against Tommy Haas helped the Swiss on his way to becoming only the sixth man to complete a career Grand Slam of all four major titles.
When Soderling ended Rafael Nadal’s four-year Paris reign eight days ago in the fourth round, Federer had been expected to grab his golden opportunity with both hands.
Except less than 24 hours later, it seemed Roland Garros would be shaken by an aftershock of similar magnitude as Federer was on the verge of suffering his earliest Grand Slam loss since 2004 when he came within five points of defeat.
At two sets and 3-4 down facing a break point, Federer conjured up a screaming forehand winner to bring the scores back to deuce. That earned Federer his get-out-of-jail-free card.
The shot was akin to the miracle birdie Federer’s friend Tiger Woods produced at the 16th during the final round of the 2005 Masters.
The American holed out from 40 yards off the green with a delicate chip that fed back 25 feet down the slope.
The ball appeared to teeter tantalisingly over the edge of the hole before, a second later, it dropped into the cup.
That shot put Woods two strokes clear and he eventually closed the deal at the first extra hole.
Just as Woods had described that moment to be the “turning point” of his campaign, Federer also pinned down his title charge to that one moment of magic against Haas.
“If you want to put it down to one point, let’s put it down to that one,” Federer, who also drew level with Pete Sampras’s overall record of 14 Grand Slam titles, said after beating Soderling 6-1, 7-6, 6-4.
That point aside, it has been the most excruciating and jittery journey for Federer towards a Grand Slam title.
“These were two long weeks but especially the last one, because it was as if I had to play four finals against Haas, (Juan Martin) del Potro, (Gael) Monfils, and Soderling. The pressure is so big,” said the world number two, who was beaten by Nadal in three successive Paris finals from 2006.
Recalling Sunday’s final, he added: “It was very hard mentally for me to stay within the match during the match, because my mind was always wondering, what if? What if I win this tournament? What does that mean? What will I possibly say? I don’t know.
“I was very nervous at the beginning of the third set because I realised how close I was. The last game ... was almost unplayable for me because I was just hoping to serve some good serves and hoping that he was going to make four errors. It was that bad. It was an emotional roller coaster for me.”
In his previous 13 assaults to Grand Slam titles he had never lost more than five sets at a single event. He dropped six in Paris but then never before had the stakes been higher.
With Nadal stalking him at every Grand Slam, including at his beloved Wimbledon where he lost an epic five-setter to the Spaniard last year, it looked as if Federer would remain a member of the three-slam club. One which boasts members such as John McEnroe and Pete Sampras but a club Federer dearly wanted to escape from.
However, time was running out since by the time the clay court Grand Slam would have come around in 2010, Federer would have been 28, he would have the distractions of coping with a baby and Nadal would be back buzzing around his head and stinging him with his wicked forehands.
When Soderling took care of the Spaniard a week ago, Federer’s luck changed and the Swiss acknowledged the timing could not be better.
“It’s definitely nice to get it at this stage of my career. I think it couldn’t have come at a better time,” he said. “So obviously the timing is very special with getting married and Mirka being pregnant.”
As for his place among the all-time greats, he added: “I think it should be judged at the very end. It’s for other people to decide.” — Reuters