- Bonnie D. Ford, Enterprise and Olympic Sports
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PARIS -- When Roger Federer squeezed his eyes shut in ecstasy and relief after match point of his first French Open championship, he saw not darkness but the fully lit pathway he can travel from now until the day he retires.
"I can go on with the rest of my career in peace knowing I don't have to worry about never winning Roland Garros,'' the Swiss superstar told a French interviewer moments after the 6-1, 7-6 (1), 6-4 victory over Sweden's Robin Soderling that simultaneously delivered a career Grand Slam -- at least one apiece of the four major tournaments that are the compass points of tennis -- and tied Pete Sampras' record for Grand Slam event titles at 14.
With that simple admission of vulnerability, Federer revealed what we've all suspected for a long, long time. He wants it all. He wants no gaps in his résumé when being considered for the infinitely debated and debatable title of Greatest Player of All Time. He wasn't going to be satisfied until he had harpooned the big red whale this tournament represents to him.
The man who presented Federer with the trophy was perhaps the only person on the planet who could fully relate. Andre Agassi won six fewer Grand Slam championships than his peer and archrival Sampras, but Sampras never got closer than the semifinals in Paris. Agassi's electrifying run to the French Open title 10 years ago lifted him out of the dreariest stretch of his career, sealed his legacy and distinguished his career from Sampras' in one amazing fortnight.
Federer and Agassi now constitute a very elite club. They are the only two men who have collected the set of all four majors on three surfaces, grass, clay and hard court.
"Four,'' a beaming Agassi corrected cordially after the match. "Rebound Ace [the somewhat more shock-absorbent surface formerly used in the Australian Open] is substantially different than hard court.''
Agassi watched Federer's reaction and felt the echo in his own memory.
"I know that there are no regrets when you cross that tape,'' Agassi said to a small group of reporters. "I got to watch him go through it, and it was such a privilege to be here. The only bigger winner than Roger today was the sport of tennis. That was history. That was really, really cool.''
Federer once made superlative performances look effortless, but the world has watched him sweat for the past season and a half. Although he looked firmly in control from the start of Sunday's straight-sets final, even that did not come without a bizarre and frightening detour when a loopy Spanish fan charged onto the court and tried to give Federer his hat.
Chased by five black-clad security guards, the fan hurdled the net and was tackled by a sixth guard who ought to be invited to the next NFL combine. The entire incident took less than 20 seconds, but Federer looked slightly shaken for a game or so and would have been totally justified in pausing to think, why me?
"Looking back, it definitely threw me out of my rhythm a little bit,'' he said. "One game later, I thought that maybe I should have sat down and taken a minute or two to kind of reflect on what just happened. Was that real or what?
"I wanted to play on and whatever, get over it. But it was a touch scary, yes.''
Federer was asked which meant more to him, the 14 Slam titles or the career Slam. He called it close. But the truth is that the core of Federer's achievement is emotional, and therefore unquantifiable.
When four-time defending champion Rafael Nadal was ousted in the fourth round, the pressure on Federer -- a three-time loser to Nadal in the French Open finals -- mounted to such an extent that he said Sunday he felt as though he'd played four championship matches in the past week. Against the backdrop of 18 months in which Federer has struggled with his confidence and the kinds of small physical ailments and problems that never troubled him at his peak, and coming a mere five months after he sobbed almost uncontrollably on court after losing the Australian Open final to Nadal, this win is monumental.
Agassi said he feared the match in Melbourne that Federer frittered away in the fifth set might have been "career-changing,'' in the negative sense.
"He's not quite the same player overall when he was when he was dominating,'' Agassi said. Might have lost a half step. Now obviously people always look good winning, but I thought Nadal started to get better and you could argue that Federer was losing an edge. You combine that opportunity with that sort of fatigue Nadal had going into that final, and the way that fifth set went, he just broke, he let it get away, which was very unlike Roger. When you've got a physical issue, and you've got a mental issue, it goes fast.''
Agassi said the fact that Federer dusted himself off and lived to win another Slam "is the true test of a champion. it's so fitting he won here. The guy has deserved it, he's earned it, he came across in a generation where he's been the second best clay-courter for five years, absolutely dominating everybody except for one person. You could call that unlucky, or you could say he just stepped up to the plate and dealt with his challenges and achieved.''
Two-time Grand Slam finalist Todd Martin agreed. "His other accomplishments pale in comparison to what he's done in the last nine months, winning the U.S. Open after not having had a great year, winning the French after not having had a good year or a good tournament,'' Martin said. "He's had to completely change his competitive outlook. He was used to walking on the court thinking nobody could beat him, and now everybody can beat him.''
Perhaps not everybody, but several distinctly lesser players nearly derailed Federer's dream in the past two weeks.
He labored through an ugly four-setter against Jose Acasuso of Argentina in the second round, extricating himself only after two tiebreaks, and was two sets down to German veteran Tommy Haas in the round of 16 before swatting a forehand winner on break point late in the third set that may be remembered as one of the most clutch shots of his career. Another Argentine, Juan Martin del Potro, pushed Federer to five sets in the semifinals.
The rawboned Soderling looked completely overwhelmed by the situation early on. He recouped and played respectably in the second set, using his crowbar of a forehand effectively, but Federer's four aces in the second-set tiebreak might as well have been four nails in a sporting coffin. Light rain fell during stretches of the match and the trophy ceremony but did not disrupt it; just after the players exited, the skies opened.
Time flies in tennis much faster than it does in life outside the rectangles. It really wasn't very long ago -- 2005, to be exact -- that Federer defeated Agassi at the U.S. Open in what was to be Agassi's last Grand Slam final. Federer had just turned 24 and had a death grip on his competition; he was in the midst of an 81-4 season and four uninterrupted years at No. 1.
Now Agassi is a statesman in a black suit and Federer, at 27 going on 28, is arguably a stopwatch tick or two past mid-career. However, looking at records still unbroken, Federer still has considerably more open road ahead of him than Sampras did at this point. In his effort to set the bar higher, he may follow in the sneakerprints left by Agassi, who played until he was 36 even as getting deep in to Grand Slams proved harder and harder.
Sampras' 2002 U.S. Open campaign had the feel of a last-chance summit attempt on Everest, the aging climber seeing a break in the weather and huffing up the ridge with his one remaining oxygen tank. He hadn't won a tournament of any kind in two years, and the hounds were in full cry, baying that he should quit.
Federer, on the other hand, can retreat to base camp, recharge and prepare for multiple repeat assaults on the mountain. He said he intends to play well into his 30s, and at this point there's no reason to doubt that assertion.
"I fought for this moment and stayed positive and calm when things maybe weren't going so well, even though they were still going great,'' Federer said.
"I always said it doesn't matter when I retire, I'll be at peace. I can walk away from this game tomorrow, but I don't choose to because I love this game too much.''
Sunday, the feeling was mutual.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
What do you get when combining the feats of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras? For Roger Federer, 14 majors, a career Grand Slam and a dream fulfilled.