Monday, June 1, 2009

Federer's French quest alive, but not that well

There has never been a better chance for Roger Federer to claim the only Grand Slam he so desperately craves. Yet by no means is he making it easy for himself.

On Monday the Swiss world number two had to come from two sets to love down to beat German veteran Tommy Haas 6-7 5-7 6-4 6-0 6-2.

It is not the first time Haas has stretched Federer to five sets in the cauldron of the fourth round of a major. In 2006 the pair faced each other in an epic at Melbourne Park that lasted two minutes shy of three hours. It was tennis of the highest quality, Federer prevailing in the end after faltering when leading two sets to love.

Again he was stretched here. Except this time Federer had to come from a long way down. It is the third time he has had to come from behind in the tournament.

And as the dust settles on Nadal’s extraordinary exit at the hands of Robin Soderling, the question has to be asked, is the weight of expectation too big a burden on Federer’s shoulders?

On Monday there was an air of inevitability to his play. No player ever thinks it, and Federer has never had anything but the upmost respect for his opponents, but to the untrained eye it may have almost looked like he felt it was his God-given right to progress to the quarters to tackle a more worthy opponent.

Undoubtedly this was not the case. But he was casual. The first set just meandered along. There was no urgency from either player. Federer incredibly did not lose a point on serve until the tiebreak, where he promptly fell behind. Haas caught him napping, seized the initiative and stole the set.

Federer, as if kick-started by this violent diversion from the script cruised to a 4-2 lead in the second. But then he inexplicably tightened, was broken twice, and was suddenly facing a two-set deficit and the prospect of an exit just 24 hours after Nadal’s. The golden opportunity that had been granted would be gone as quickly as it came.

Federer quickly arrested back control from a nervous Haas, who had obviously realised the enormity of the position he had found himself in. As experienced as the 31-year-old German is, the prospect of ending Federer’s outrageous streak of 19 consecutive Grand Slam semi-final appearances would make anyone take their eye off the ball. The opportunities on Federer’s serve disappeared and the Swiss maestro found the intensity he had lacked in the opening two sets. And 16 games later it was two-sets all. Federer’s brilliant recovery had happened in the blink of an eye and Haas’ body language resembled that of a beaten man.

Haas had one more chance. Leading 2-1 on serve, the German saw a momentary sign of weakness from Federer. Leading 40-15 in the fourth game Federer should have leveled the set 2-2 with a simple swinging forehand volley. He missed by a distance that suggested it was more than an aberration. The next serve lacked venom or precision, and Haas controlled the rally until he netted a backhand that let Federer off the hook. Haas hung his head, Federer bounced to the chair. The end was nigh. Two breaks saw it end quickly but no less painfully for Haas.

Federer is not flying. He has not swept all before him in his quest for a record-equalling 14th Grand Slam, and a first Musketeers Cup that may well complete arguably the most impressive resume in tennis history.

But he is doing enough. With no Nadal in the field the threats to his quest come in reality from only two corners and even one of those is debatable. Nikolay Davydenko is a dangerous customer. Twice a French Open semi-finalist he has proven he has the capabilities of winning this title. But for Federer he holds no fears. The real threat is Scot Andy Murray, who has beaten Federer in four of five encounters in the last 12 months. However none of those meetings have been on clay and only one has come in a Grand Slam. It was the one Federer won, and it was for the US Open title.

The time is now for Federer to crown himself as tennis’ king. He is now only three matches away. And it seems his destiny is in his own hands.

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