Roger Federer’s Clay Court Skills and the “Career Grand Slam”
If Roger Federer is able to win the 2009 French Open, he will complete a “Career Grand Slam” as well as tie Pete Sampras for the all-time men’s record for most major singles titles with 14. Rene Stauffer, the Swiss tennis writer and author of the book The Roger Federer Story, Quest for Perfection (www.rogerfederbook.com, New Chapter Press, $24.95), discussed the “Career Grand Slam” as well as Roger’s clay court skills in the best-selling book, as excerpted below.
Roger Federer lost out on his first opportunity to win a Grand Slam tournament in 2005 after losing to Marat Safin in the semifinals of the Australian Open. The French Open, however, offered him another opportunity for a career milestone-a milestone that only a very select few have achieved-the “Career Grand Slam.” The term stands for winning all four major titles over a tennis career-a feat only achieved by five men in the history of the sport. Rod Laver and Don Budge are the only men who have won a “real” or calendar-year Grand Slam-winning all four major titles in the same year. Budge won the first Grand Slam in 1938, while Laver won a Grand Slam in 1962 as an amateur and then again in 1969 as a professional. Fred Perry of Great Britain clinched his career Grand Slam at the 1935 French Championships, while Roy Emerson of Australia completed his career quartette at Wimbledon in 1964 at age 27. Andre Agassi joined Laver as the only professional players to win a career Grand Slam when he won the French Open in 1999.
For Agassi, as well as for many other great players in the history of the game, the French Open or “Roland Garros” proved to be the toughest nut to crack. It took him 11 attempts and three trips to the championship match until he finally won in Paris. Even in his lucky third appearance in the singles final in 1999, he decisively lost the first two sets to the unseeded Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev before rallying for the five-set victory at age 29-seven years after winning his first Grand Slam tournament title.
Clay court tennis is in some regards a different form of tennis as it requires different footwork-a “sliding-into-the-ball” approach. The clay surface slows the velocity of the ball enough to give players on the defensive just a little more time to save a passed shot that on a faster surface would otherwise be a winner. Changes in temperature as well as variations in humidity levels provide for constantly changing playing conditions. Warm weather dries out clay courts and makes them play faster and favors the more aggressive players than when it is cold and moist, when the courts play much slower and favor the more defensive-minded players.
These extraordinary-and unpredictable-conditions explain why the French Open seems to always have the most unlikely champions of all four of the Grand Slam tournaments. The clay courts and the conditions create an environment where a larger pool of players become potential champions of the event as opposed to Wimbledon or the US Open. Some of the greatest serve-and-volley and aggressive-style players have routinely left Paris defeated. Yannick Noah’s ability to play an aggressive style of play and defeat the defensive clay court style of Mats Wilander in the 1983 French final still seems like a minor miracle.
More than half of the 23 players who were ranked No. 1 in the world rankings entering 2007 do not have a French Open title on their resume. This includes Boris Becker, who reached the semifinals three times, Pete Sampras, who only reached the semifinals on one occasion in 13 attempts, John McEnroe, who lost a painful final to Ivan Lendl in 1984 after a two-sets-to-love lead, and Stefan Edberg, who led Michael Chang two sets to one in the 1989 final before losing. Jimmy Connors, who was either denied entry or did not enter the tournament for many years, is also part of the group of all-time greats without a French title. Other notables on the list include John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe, Patrick Rafter, Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt. Although Federer’s professional career began with 11 straight defeats on clay courts, he never allowed himself to become discouraged. In France, where he experienced the least amount of success of the Grand Slam tournaments, Federer constantly made reference to the fact that he grew up on clay courts and that this was “his surface” too. He had after all won three titles on clay at the German Open in Hamburg and proved repeatedly in Davis Cup play that he could compete with anybody on clay courts. However, to date, he was unable to even advance as far as the semifinals at Roland Garros.
Federer may have arrived in Paris with a season’s record of 41-2 but he expressed caution before his seventh French Open. “The first rounds here are always treacherous,” he said in a modest tone that was sometimes missing from previous years. “I’m not thinking about winning this tournament.” He arrived in Paris directly from Portugal and had the privilege of being able to practice every day on the Centre Court at Roland Garros-the Philippe Chatrier Court-where he suffered many of his most devastating losses as a professional. Federer’s excellent pre-event preparation and the tutoring from the now 60-year-old Tony Roche paid off. He won the first five matches of the tournament without dropping a set to reach the semifinals for the first time in his career. “It’s almost going a bit too quickly for me,” he said of his relatively easy jaunt to the semifinals.
However, waiting for Federer in the semifinals was none other than Nadal-whom he faced for the first time on a clay court. The young Spaniard was full of self-confidence and entered the match with a 22-match win streak. Due to a rain delay, as well the five-set match between Argentinean Mariano Puerta and Russian Nikolay Davydenko in the other men’s semifinal, Federer and Nadal did not take the court until 6:20 pm local time in Paris. Federer struggled from the start and was troubled-particularly off the forehand-by Nadal’s extreme topspin. After losing four of the first five games, Federer surrendered the first set 6-3-his first lost set of the tournament-as he had his serve broken an incredible four times. He managed to win the second set 6-4, but remained unusually nervous and committed nearly twice as many mistakes as Nadal in the third set. Nadal led 4-2, before Federer broke back to square the set. After Nadal held in the ninth game of the third set, he clinched the third set-and a two-sets-to-one lead-with a cross-court running forehand winner. Darkness started to fall in Paris and Federer was irritated. He seemed to be in a rush and requested the match be suspended due to darkness. The chair umpire did not allow it. Federer was flustered and Nadal took control of the match as he broke Federer’s serve in the eighth game to take a 5-3 lead and closed out the 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory one game later. “I started the match off badly and ended it badly,” Federer summarized. “I played well in between but all in all, that was not enough.”
Like at the Australian Open when Federer was defeated by Safin in the wee hours of the morning of Safin’s 25th birthday, Federer was again a birthday victim at a Grand Slam event. This Friday-June 3rd-was the 19th birthday of Nadal-and like Safin-he would go on to win the tournament. In an exciting final between two left-handed players, Nadal defeated Puerta, who, as it turned out months later, tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and was suspended from professional tennis.
The more time Federer pondered the loss to Nadal, the more positives he drew from it. He proved to himself and others that he had what it takes to win the French Open, despite what he thought was his worst performance in the later stages of a Grand Slam tournament. He was convinced that this loss to Nadal would be a learning experience. He now believed he could win the French Open and achieve the rare career Grand Slam. Another positive to temper his mood was the fact that the French public took a liking to him and rallied behind him during his matches, most notably against Nadal. “It was fantastic how they supported me,” he said. “It was almost like a victory for me because it’s not easy to win the crowd in Paris.”
Since Federer’s semifinal showing was a vast improvement from his third-round loss the year before, his grip on the No. 1 ranking rose to a record 6,980 points-giving him almost twice as many points as the No. 2-ranked Hewitt. Federer nonetheless maneuvered himself into a startling situation. He only lost three matches during the year but he stood empty-handed in Grand Slam titles. If he were to fail at Wimbledon as well, the only opportunity for a title remaining would be the always unpredictable US Open. His statementfrom the previous fall that he would be satisfied in 2005 with just one Grand Slam title suddenly took on new importance.