Peruvian Luis Horna

Federer’s Most Devasting French Open Loss?

What was Roger Federer’s most devastating loss at the French Open? Some would say the 2008 final, when he was dominated by Rafael Nadal 6-1, 6-3, 6-0. Another candidate would be his 2003 first-round loss to Luis Horna. Rene Stauffer, the author of the definitive book on Federer called THE ROGER FEDERER STORY: QUEST FOR PERFECTION ($24.95, New Chapter Press, www.rogerfedererbook.com) details this loss and its circumstances in this book excerpt.

Federer’s success continued into the start of the clay court season as he won the title in Munich and also reached the final of the Italian Open, losing unexpectedly to Felix Mantilla of Spain. The result, however, still propelled him into the conversation as being a favorite to win the French Open.

“I feel much better this year than the year before when I first was in the top 10,” he explained in one of the many interviews before the French Open. “It was a new situation for me back then. I’ve gotten used to it in the meantime.”

He admitted to feeling the pressure from the public. “The entire world keeps reminding me that I am supposed to win a Grand Slam tournament and be No. 1 in the world. That’s not fair because it’s not that easy,” he said. He then stated defiantly that “whoever wants to beat me will have to work hard for it. I don’t want to lose in the first round at Roland Garros again.”

On a summery Monday afternoon in Paris, Federer’s first match at the 2003 French Open took place on Court Philippe Chatrier, the center court named after the Frenchman who was a past president of the International Tennis Federation. His opponent was an unknown Peruvian Luis Horna, whom Federer beat earlier in the year in Key Biscayne. Horna, ranked No. 88 in the world, had yet to win a match at a Grand Slam tournament. Federer took an early 5-3 lead in the first set, but began to show his insecurity and nerves when, during a routine rush to the net, he slipped and fell to the ground, only to mutter to himself and show negative emotions. Despite his lead, he seemed discouraged and, quite unusually, often glanced desperately at Peter Lundgren. Federer lost his service break advantage and despite holding a set point in the tie-break, he surrendered the first set by an 8-6 tie-break. The match immediately turned into a drama for Federer. He seemed frustrated, apathetic and didn’t show any belief that he could win. He appeared mentally absent, missing even the easiest shots. He tallied 82 unforced errors in the 7-6 (6), 6-2, 7-6 (3) first-round loss.

The tournament was shockingly finished before it even really began. Federer, the fallen favorite, appeared in the overcrowded interview room with his head bowed low. “I don’t know how long I’ll need to get over this defeat,” he said. “A day, a week, a year-or my entire career.”

Federer became the ridicule of the tournament. France’s sports newspaper L’Equipe ran a headline the next day translated as, “Shipwrecked In Quiet Waters” and published a cartoon in which a steam ship named “Roland Garros” steams away, leaving Federer behind in quiet waters. Florida’s Palm Beach Post described him as the “Phil Mickelson of Tennis,” comparing Federer to the American golfer who failed to win any of the major tournaments deĀ­spite his great talent and many opportunities. “Federer has all the strokes but no Grand Slam trophy. He carries the dog tags of the best tennis player who has never won a major competition.”

The loss undeniably confirmed Federer’s reputation as a Grand Slam loser. He showed that he was a player who could not pull out a match even though he was not playing his best tennis-a characteristic that most champion tennis players exhibited, most notably in the present by Lleyton Hewitt, who could win a match on guts and determination alone. Since his victory over Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001, Federer was 0-4 in matches at the French Open and Wimbledon-the last three matches without even winning a set. His last five Grand Slam tournaments ended in defeat at the hands of much lower-ranked players

What could one say in his defense? Federer was now five years into his ATP career and approached his 22nd birthday. He won six ATP singles titles, excelled in Davis Cup play and time and again insisted he was capable of achieving greatness. He was considered one of the bigger stars in tennis and climbed to No. 5 in the world rankings. But outside of the title in Hamburg, all of the tournaments he won were smaller events and even the German Open was not a Grand Slam tournament. Federer failed routinely in the arenas where it was decided if a player was a champion or not. The once precocious maverick simply could not bring his tremendous potential to bear at the Grand Slams. When looking at the successes of his idols, rivals or earlier great players, he couldn’t help but feel envy. At his age, Becker, Borg, Courier, Edberg and Sampras as well as Hewitt, Safin and many others had already long since won their first Grand Slam titles. Federer, however, had not even reached the semifinals at a Grand Slam tournament. The experts were unaniĀ­mous in their opinions that Federer was mature enough athletically to break through a win his first title. But athletic brilliance alone was not sufficient enough and Federer was still searching for the key to real success.

An analysis would seem to indicate that a mental block was preventing him from winning. He felt under pressure to such a degree at the Grand Slam tournaments that he couldn’t concentrate on the moment, especially in the early rounds. This was a basic rule for success. The pressure came from all sides-but mostly from himself. He hadn’t yet learned that these tournaments couldn’t be won in the first week but they certainly could be lost. With some luck, he could have already won a Grand Slam title-in 2001, for example, after upsetting Sampras. Everything would have looked different.

After his loss to Horna, Federer seemed to be the loneliest man in tennis. He was a man alone braving the stormy tempest. How could he have known that this defeat was to be his last such one-sided Grand Slam defeat in a very, very long time? How could he have known that this painful experience was necessary in order to become the hardened, keen-sighted but yet modest champion who would have the tennis world at his feet?

Federer described what really happened when he faced Horna in Paris months later. “I was simply not prepared mentally,” he said. “I put myself under too much pressure. After losing the first set, I couldn’t get back into the match. I had the feeling that it was impossible, that I was no longer in control of the situation. After the first set, I said to myself, ‘Even if I survive this round, I still have to play six more rounds to win this tournament.’ That almost drove me insane. I put myself under such pressure that I couldn’t play anymore.”

After the match, he said that he was overwhelmed with questions about the how and why. “But at that moment, I didn’t really feel like talking about it. I was too disappointed. I wanted to do nothing else but take eight days vacation and then start my preparations for the grass tournament in Halle. I didn’t want to think about Roland Garros-I wanted to forget it. I didn’t want to analyze what happened because I knew that I had simply failed mentally. I didn’t accept it by any means

Ask Bill: Looking Back to Paris; Looking Ahead to Wimbledon

Some random thoughts from a fascinating Roland Garros and the first look forward to the grass…

Roger Federer’s performance in the Roland Garros final against Rafael Nadal was reminiscent of Muhammad Ali’s fight against Larry Holmes. A mismatch from the start, Ali pulled out his tricks but had no answers for the younger, stronger Holmes, and was battered mercilessly. Like Sunday’s final, this was simply a bad match-up, and- to use the age-old explanation- styles make fights. Nadal moves better, defends better, and can control points off the ground (on clay, anyway) better than Federer. Like seeing The Greatest get punched around the ring, it was still surprising to witness Federer looking so vulnerable.

Rafael Nadal did not hit a single ace in the semis or final. He hit only seven aces during the entire two weeks. This serving approach will change on the grass. He will need some free points at crucial moments.

Darren Cahill brought up an interesting point on ESPN about Nadal’s Wimbledon preparation. Instead of rushing across the channel to play the Artois Championships, he should rest for a few days and skip the Queens Club event. Recall that he was spent by the end of Wimbledon last summer, although admittedly he was forced to play five (rain-delayed) matches in the last seven days of The Championships. Had Nadal been fresher, then he would have likely taken the fifth set of last year’s final.

Of course the cynic can offer about one million reasons why Nadal will compete at Queens Club again this year. It is hard to pass up that kind of appearance fee loot no matter how wealthy he has become. To paraphrase Bob Dylan (from “It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry”), don’t say I never warned you if Nadal loses early this week.

It was great to see Bjorn Borg attending matches during the final weekend of Roland Garros. In an interesting on-court interview with his great rival John McEnroe, Borg agreed to play with Mighty Mac in the over-45 doubles next year.

Borg also told McEnroe that this was the first time he had returned to Roland Garros since winning the event in 1981 (beating Ivan Lendl in a five-set final). Evidently Borg forgot that he did television work for NBC Sports in 1983 (interviewing Yannick Noah and Mats Wilandner after their final) and presented the Coupe De Mosquetaires on-court to Gustavo Kuerten in 1997. Guga famously bowed to the great Borg, as though the Swede was royalty. Let’s just presume that Borg’s passing shots were better than his memory!

Ai Sugiyama is preparing to break the all-time record at the All England Club by competing in her 56th consecutive major tournament. She currently shares this record with Wayne Ferreira, who played 56 straight from 1991 to 2004. This is a remarkable strength of will and consistency.

In the For What It’s Worth category… After last year’s epic Wimbledon final, Roger Federer did an interview with a standout former player. Afterwards, this player, off-camera, of course, told his colleague that the Swiss would never win another Wimbledon title. He saw cracks in the armor last summer.

Fingers are crossed that Slazenger has produced livelier balls for this year’s grass court season. It has been disappointing to see men’s professional grass court tennis look like… hard court tennis. If that’s what people really want to see, then the grass should be paved for a more “fair” hard court surface. I would prefer that it retain the traditional allure for attacking players and reward players for net-rushing tactics.

In 1984, there were 64 American men in the singles main draw of Wimbledon. That will never be matched again. I do, however, expect to see several Yanks doing some damage at SW19.

Serena Williams would have been really annoyed with her result at Roland Garros. She will keep the Venus Rosewater Dish in the Williams family’s possession this year.

Uruguayan Pablo Cuevas and Peruvian Luis Horna completed a storybook run to the French men’s doubles title. In the quarterfinals they took out former champions and the top-ranked team in the world, Bob and Mike Bryan. This match received a lot of attention because afterwards the Bryans refused to shake hands with Cuevas, as they were offended by his show of exuberance in the third set tiebreak. As the South American pair raced to a 5-1 lead, Cuevas leaped the net to switch sides- instead of walking around the net post. While it might have been a bit much, hopping the net certainly appeared to be an act of spontaneity on Cuevas’ part. The Bryans have perfected the leaping chest bump, so their reaction seemed a bit harsh.

To offer some context, the Bryan brothers have saved men’s professional doubles. Without them, it might not even exist these days. They carry the weight and responsibility of, literally, preserving this form of the professional sport. Furthermore, they have each distinguished themselves as fierce competitors and gentlemen throughout their storied career. They get it. Therefore, the Bryans deserve some slack. I’ll bet that they wish they had not reacted so strongly during the heat of the moment. I’ll also bet that they are hoping for a rematch against Cuevas and Horna at the Big W.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have much to gain these next months, and Federer much to defend. Pete Sampras finished as the world’s top-ranked player for a remarkable six straight years (1993-98), and Federer’s assault on that record is looking bleaker. Roger will need a “turn back the clock” effort for the remainder of 2008 to avoid relegation to No. 3 in the year-end rankings.

Less than half of the world’s top-ten players will compete in the Beijing Olympics. Keep reading the agate type in your sports sections for listings of injuries, because most of the top players will find them before hopping on a plane for Asia in August. This is as sure as the sun rising in the East.

I always write about making a pilgrimage to beautiful Newport, RI for the Hall of Fame Championships each July. For any fan living or traveling in Europe, please visit Eastbourne. This is a charming coastal town in the south of England, and a wonderful warm-up tournament for The Championships. The honor roll of former champions stands as a “who’s-who” list of Hall of Famers. The grass courts are typically as good as any in the world, and the players love the relaxed environment. In fact, the accessibility to the players is virtually unprecedented in this day and age.