Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Updated: June 7, 9:23 AM ET
Federer's biggest weapon? His name
Is there a defining pattern to this relatively late and non-dominant stage of Roger Federer's career? If so, I'd say it's this: He goes down early to a solid second-tier player in the fourth round of a major, looks confused, indifferent, and as good as dead, then rallies from the grave to win in five sets before cruising to the final of the tournament. At the U.S. Open last fall, it was Igor Andreev; at the Aussie Open, it was Tomas Berdych; and this week at the French Open it was Tommy Haas and Juan Martin del Potro who couldn't close the door. Each time Federer has been pushed a little farther toward oblivion -- Haas won the first two sets and had a break point to serve for the match -- before snapping out of whatever funk he was in. Each time it's looked like he's woken up just in time and said, "Hey, I'm Roger Federer!"
Maybe he has. But what's more likely is that his opponent has heard those same fateful words come from deep within his subconscious: "Hey, he's Roger Federer!" This is a reward that the great champions always reap: Their opponents aren't just closing out a player, they're closing out a name.
As a name, "Roger Federer" is nothing special. It isn't unique like "Tiger Woods" or exotic like "Rafael Nadal." "Roger" is old-fashioned and unthreatening, while "Federer" sounds like it was based on the mispronunciation of a stammerer in the family many decades ago. Why does it need the second "er"? Why isn't it just "Feder"? Why not go all the way and make it "Federerererer"?
But whatever its aesthetic deficiencies, to his opponents at the Slams, that name has become synonymous with achieving the impossible. Not only does Federer own 13 majors, he has reached 20 consecutive semifinals at them. This isn't true anywhere else -- the Swiss has won just a single Masters 1000 event in the last two years. The difference is the two-of-three-set format used at most events, versus three-of-five-set format used at Slams. Andreev, Berdych and Haas had to spend an extra 10 games contemplating the gravity of what he was about to do. Each had begun the match with nothing to lose. Each, once he grabbed the lead, suddenly found himself with everything to lose. History is a hard thing to carry on your back, and it was no surprise to see Haas, who double-faulted and was broken at 4-4 in the third set, buckle under it. It was no surprise to see it happen again to 20-year-old Juan Martin del Potro on Friday. What else could account for his winning the third set 6-2 and then turning around and dropping the fourth 6-1 in about 20 minutes?
As intimidating as Nadal is on court, he hasn't been No. 1 long enough to win matches with his name alone in the later rounds of majors. Before Federer, of course, Pete Sampras enjoyed the benefits of name recognition. After his six Wimbledon titles, could anyone with a different last name have won one on one leg, the way he did for his seventh in 2000?
The question now is whether "Roger Federer" will finally do enough to get Roger Federer across his finish line at the French Open on Sunday. If he does, it will make him just the third man in the Open era, after Rod Laver and Andre Agassi, to complete a career Grand Slam. At the same time, it will tie him with Sampras for the most majors in men's tennis history, with 14. In one fell swoop Federer will have matched the two very different signature achievements of the best players of the last 20 years. Most, if not all, arguments that Federer isn't the greatest of all time will be swept away in the process.
His play has been erratic so far in Paris -- Acasuso, Haas and del Potro have all had him on the ropes -- but there's no reason to think Federer's reputation will let him down at this point, after holding him up for two weeks. His opponent, Robin Soderling, beat Rafael Nadal last weekend and showed previously unseen heart Friday when he came back from 1-4 down in the fifth set against Fernando Gonzalez. Still, it's hard to think of a better opponent for Federer, who is 9-0 against Soderling and will be coming in knowing that he can weather whatever early storm the Swede may bring to the court.
Soderling may be able to put his ugly record out of his mind for three sets, but he won't be able to forget a much more important word. With each hold of serve by his opponent, the chair umpire will repeat it: "Jeu, Federer."