Commentary

From prodigy to supreme excellence

Originally Published: June 7, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- In his very first service game, Roger Federer hit a drop shot so sublime it may have evaporated.

It was a deceptively gentle backhand flick of the wrist, and the ball nearly grazed the net cord before bouncing about a foot in the air and spinning back toward the net. It was, upon reflection, the yin to Rafael Nadal's yang of a punishing topspin forehand that had dominated Roland Garros for the past four years.

Sometimes, in the frenzy of the moment, we forget to appreciate Federer's artistry. It may not be fully possible to process his supreme command of the court.

On a blustery Sunday visited by rain, Federer's subtle brushstrokes were all over a 6-1, 7-6 (1), 6-4 victory over Robin Soderling in the final of the French Open.

"In some ways," said Andre Agassi, the 1999 champion here, "it almost feels like destiny for him."

Just as it did for Agassi a decade ago, the victory completed a personal Grand Slam for Federer. In the larger context, it was the 14th Grand Slam singles title for Federer, tying him with Pete Sampras for the best men's total.

"It's an unbelievable achievement … to get it in the end as my last Grand Slam tournament," Federer said. "It's an incredible feeling. Especially being so close the last few years. It's been a long time coming, and I'm very proud."

Federer, for what it's worth, did it with far greater dispatch.

Sampras needed 52 Grand Slam tournaments to achieve his total; Federer accomplished it in 40.

Based on the timing of Sampras' last title, at the 2002 U.S. Open, Federer has 12 opportunities -- three years of championship viability, essentially -- to surpass him. The fact that he has, after creating widespread doubt, won two of the past three majors cannot be a comfort to his younger rivals.

Federer has won his 14 majors in a span of 24 Grand Slam events, going back to 2003. The best streak Sampras ever produced was winning nine of 17 in a span from 1993 to 1997. You have to go to the women's side to find comparable examples. Martina Navratilova won 14 of 23 majors from 1982 to '87 -- the densest concentration of championship excellence on record -- and Steffi Graf took 14 of 25 between 1988 and 1994.

The first volley in this fascinating nuclear arms race was fired nearly 19 years ago by a California teenager in New York.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesRoger Federer has many more Slam opportunities to pass Pete Sampras for the record.

Sampras, 19, defeated three-time U.S. Open champion Ivan Lendl in the quarterfinals; four-time champion John McEnroe in the semifinals; then thrashed long-haired, tie-dyed Agassi 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 in the 1990 U.S. Open final.

Agassi called it "a good old-fashioned street mugging."

It was the first Grand Slam title for Sampras, and the last, in 2002, would also come in New York, also against Agassi. He hadn't won in 26 months, but Sampras -- 31 years old and the No. 17 seed -- produced 33 aces and beat Agassi in four sets.

"This one might take the cake," Sampras mused after winning his record 14th major title, not fully knowing that it would be his final match.

Nine months later, Federer would win his first Grand Slam title on Sampras' favorite court, Centre Court at Wimbledon, in 2003. The 21-year-old from Basel, Switzerland, wrecked Mark Philippoussis in straight sets.

"He'll win many more Wimbledons," said Boris Becker, a three-time champion at the All England Club. "We have seen the future.

"The future has come today."

How did it feel, Federer was asked, to join the likes of Sampras?

"Oh," Federer said, a little startled. "This is, you know, one of his seven. I'm so far away. I'm just happy to be on the board."

In the nearly six years since, Federer swiftly closed the gap. He won five straight Wimbledon titles, five straight U.S. Opens and, along with three Australian Opens, coming into this year he suddenly found himself not so far away. With 13 Grand Slams, the most recent at the 2008 U.S. Open with a win over Andy Murray in the final, he was just one behind Sampras.

Paris, of course, was the least likely venue anyone could have imagined to be delivering No. 14. Sampras never won here at Roland Garros -- he reached the semifinals in 1996 but was eliminated by eventual champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov -- and Federer had failed in 10 tries here, losing to Rafael Nadal the last four times, three of them in the final.

Sampras and Federer have become good friends in recent years; Sampras has hosted Federer at his home in California and the two played a series of exhibitions in the fall of 2007.

They crossed paths only once as professionals, appropriately, at Wimbledon in 2001.

Federer was 19 and wore a bandana and a ponytail. Sampras was 29 and looking for his fifth straight championship -- and his eighth overall. Their fourth-round match couldn't have been closer.

Sampras had a set point in the first-set tiebreaker, but Federer hit a service winner. A Sampras backhand into the net gave the set to Federer, who eventually won the match 7-6 (7), 5-7, 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5.

"You know something so great isn't going to last forever," Sampras said. "Today, I just came up a little bit short.

"It was his moment."

Federer, a prodigy with unnatural hand-eye coordination and an already intuitive command of the court, was brought to tears.

"This is the biggest win of my life," he said.

It's already been a tumultuous season for Federer, who broke down in tears after losing to Nadal in a five-set final at the Australian Open, then smashed his racket during a semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic at the Sony Ericsson Open. At the French Open, he lost the first set in three of his matches and trailed Tommy Haas 2-love in the fourth round and Juan Martin del Potro 2-1 in the semifinals.

There were no such nerves evident in the opening set of the final. But as the match progressed, Federer grew tighter.

"I expected a tough match today, obviously," Federer said. "I was hoping for a good start, and I got it, which relaxed me.

"It was hard for me mentally to stay within the match during the match. My mind was wandering. You know, 'What if … what if I win the tournament? What will I possibly say?'

"The last game was almost unplayable for me. It was that bad. An emotional roller coaster for me."

Federer lost exactly one point on his serve and closed the deal in all of 23 minutes. The second set was more problematic. It lasted 49 minutes and went the distance, but the result was the same.

In the tiebreaker, Soderling was a spectator as Federer won seven of eight points -- and stroked first-ball aces on each of his four serves. It was Sampras-esque.

"I played one of the greatest tiebreakers in my career with the four aces," Federer said.

Another spectator, apparently a fan of FC Barcelona, visited Federer early in the second set. Federer was shaken by the man, who ran on court and made significant contact before being dragged off by a half-dozen security guards.

"First, I don't know exactly what happened," Federer said. "That gave me a fright, seeing him so close right away. It happened at Wimbledon and once at Montreal, [so] it wasn't the first time.

"This guy looked at me, and I wasn't sure what he wanted. It definitely felt uncomfortable when he came close to me. He threw me out of my rhythm.

"It was a touch scary, yes."

After it happened, Federer, breathing hard, walked around for a minute. He retied his bandana. And then he got back to the business of being the best that ever was.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.