Commentary

Wide-open field a burden for Federer?

Updated: June 3, 2009, 4:53 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

PARIS -- How rich is this? Roger Federer, whose chances of tying Pete Sampras' record for Grand Slam titles were left for dead by some critics in the past year, has a walloping good chance to do it at the one major that eluded the American and so far has remained beyond the Swiss superstar's reach as well.

The men's draw has dissolved into competitive anarchy following quadruple defending champion Rafael Nadal's shocking fourth-round ouster by Sweden's 23rd-seeded Robin Soderling, who steamrolled a passive Nikolay Davydenko, the 10th seed, in straight sets to advance to the semifinal Tuesday.

But is the absence of Federer's nemesis more a boon or a burden? In his first chance to seize the day, the second-seeded 13-time Grand Slam champion initially played as if he had a piano on his back and had to rally from two sets down against Germany's Tommy Haas to advance to the quarterfinals. It will take a reappearance of Federer's old concertmaster's confidence and control to keep going.

"If there's anyone in this world who's capable of taking advantage of an opportunity, which this is, it's Roger Federer," analyst and retired pro Justin Gimelstob said. "This is a different kind of opportunity, Nadal being out so early. The challenge is managing the fact that there's still a long way to go, and a lot of great players, and it's still not his most natural surface.

"The fact that he beat Nadal in Madrid [in an ATP final last month] and everyone thought Nadal was going to beat him here and sort of restore order -- the fact that Nadal doesn't get to do that is of exponential value to Roger. But it could all switch again. If [Federer] doesn't win here and he flounders, it could set him back."

After his close call against Haas -- a match Federer said turned on one solitary shot, a clutch forehand winner on a break point late in the third set -- he said beating Nadal here would have been his "dream scenario." Make no mistake, though: Winning the French Open against someone else would be pretty divine as well.

If Federer can complete his career Slam (wins of all four majors) and tie Sampras in one fell swoop, it could have implications that extend far beyond this week. Federer would go into Wimbledon and the U.S. Open with fantastic momentum and solidify his case to be informally crowned as the greatest player of all time.

As Federer noted with classic understatement, "I probably have a decent record against" players he might face going forward. He's a combined 38-1 against the five other men left in the field, and the lone loss, to potential finals opponent Fernando Gonzalez of Chile, came on hard court. In Tuesday's quarterfinal, the 12th-seeded Gonzalez eliminated the man who might have been considered Federer's biggest threat on paper, third seed Andy Murray of Great Britain, who is 6-2 against Federer but has never beaten him on clay.

But Murray's former coach, ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, said those stats may be irrelevant given the way the tournament has gone so far.

"I've been playing and coaching in majors since '81, and these results are contagious," Gilbert said. "Expect something more bizarre to happen tomorrow. These upsets, everyone starts feeling like, 'I can be the next.'

"Federer should win, but he shouldn't have lost five sets to Tommy Haas. He was five points from being done. He was in trouble against [Jose] Acasuso [in the second round]. We've never seen him struggle like this. If he gets to the final, I'm not worried about him. But get through his half [of the draw]."

Looming immediately ahead is the lanky silhouette of 11th seed Gael Monfils, who will face Federer on Wednesday in a rematch of last year's semifinal, won by Federer in four sets. The flexible Frenchman is winless in four career matches against Federer but nonetheless will constitute a stiff challenge if he plays the way he did against Andy Roddick in the round of 16, bombing aces, tracking down every ball in his zip code with his albatross reach and overwhelming Roddick with sheer athleticism.

"His game is quite solid now," Federer said of Monfils, who has dropped just one set through the first four rounds. "He's calmer than he was in the past."

Indeed, Monfils has managed to become a more disciplined and consistent player in the past year without losing any of his fire and flair.

"He's not the same player he was a year ago," ESPN analyst Chris Fowler said. "He's being a lot more forceful, a lot more offensive."

Monfils refused to discuss his expectations of the Federer match in specific terms, saying only, "I think I'm ready. I hope I'm ready. I have to take my revenge. I hope I can make it." His level of play doesn't appear to have been impaired by a tender knee, whose condition Monfils described as "s---" and "hell." On the flip side, zealous home support should continue to put wind beneath his considerable wingspan.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesRoger Federer is 38-1 versus the rest of the players remaining in the French Open.

A couple of years ago, pressure to win would have been viewed as something Federer would not only take in stride, but grab and run away with. That picture is less certain, even though a win over Monfils would launch Federer into his 20th straight Slam semifinal.

When a reporter asked Federer how his part-time coach and his wife reacted to the prospect of a Nadal-less French Open, he downplayed the altered landscape. "[They] never came to me saying, 'Now you have to win this match, otherwise you will never do it, ever.' No. By the way, this is not what I wanted to hear, and this is not their reaction. I'm really happy, because we stayed calm."

It may seem odd to even raise the issue of his psyche as he tries to grab this slippery brass ring. But Federer's emotional meltdown at the Australian Open trophy ceremony after his five-set loss to Nadal revealed just how much passion and frustration are roiling beneath his serene exterior.

If Federer pulls wins here with less than ideal form, Gilbert said it should be considered his greatest single accomplishment to date.

"I'm just not sure he's going to be able to turn it on," Gilbert said. "He might get through, but I don't think he's gonna rout people."

Meanwhile, Gimelstob has "no doubt" Federer will pass Sampras' mark sooner or later. "It'll be interesting to observe how he processes it all," he said. "The great thing about his game is that he'll always be in the conversation at Slams. He just may not always be the favorite. He's going to play for a long time if his body holds up. It's just not going to be as easy, and he's not going do it running away without losing a set.

"He's going to go through matches like this where he's an inch away from losing, and he wins the tournament and nobody remembers that he was an inch away from losing. He's going to win Slams like that."

How fabulously ironic it would be if it happens here.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.