Federer's sparkling results unmatched
WIMBLEDON, England -- Grand Slam events are a dangerous two-week journey fraught with potential potholes and pitfalls: seven matches, seven opponents, seven occasions when the infinite variables in play can suddenly align themselves against you.
On a given day, your opponent might suddenly find it in him to play a career match. Or perhaps, for whatever reason, you're not feeling the fire. Or maybe that tender groin muscle is limiting your movement.
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Well, for more than five years now, Roger Federer has won every single Grand Slam match from Round 1 through the quarterfinals. Playing against players he was expected to beat, Federer has never, ever called in sick, never slept in, never succumbed to an off day or flagging motivation.
"It can be over quickly," Federer said after his first-round match here at the All England Club. "It's not so easy. You've got to stay concentrated. Two, three weeks is a long time."
This feat of consistent excellence cannot be overstated. Since losing to Gustavo Kuerten in the third round at the 2004 French Open, Federer has won each and every one of his 102 matches, subtracting two walkovers, on the way to the semifinals. That's 100 percent. Perfect.
In the process, Federer has reached 20 straight Grand Slam semifinals; that the next-best total is 10, belonging to Ivan Lendl, underlines his greatness. On Monday, he was the predictable winner over Robin Soderling, the man he flogged 22 days ago in the French Open final. The score was 6-4, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5).
Soderling has now lost to Federer each of the 11 times they've played. Afterward, Federer was asked which aspect of his game pleased him the most.
"Just being relaxed out on court," he said. "You know, no signs of panics, what I maybe had, you know, six months ago when I played. I would just feel uneasy. I wouldn't be exactly sure what the right plays were.
"Now I feel perfect."
There's that word again. It's worth mentioning that this is a relatively new phenomenon.
When Federer struggled with his health and had a squirrelly start to the 2008 season, the hysteria began. And then he lost his No. 1 ranking this past August. After rallying to win the U.S. Open, Federer had some relatively spotty results early in 2009, and the chorus of cynics grew louder. But now, after his breakthrough in Paris, order has been restored to the Federer universe.
When Federer won his first French Open several weeks ago, it was his 14th Grand Slam singles title, and it tied him with Pete Sampras for the record.
Sampras might be the only person on this Earth who fully understands what Federer has been going through lately. From 1993 to '98, he put together his own streak of consistent excellence, when he was the No. 1-ranked player for six years running.
"He's dominated and won these majors with ease," Sampras said back in March. "And now he's got Nadal, and Murray's beaten him a few times, and Djokovic is getting better. And he's not quite as dominant.
"Individually, to do it for five, six, seven, eight years, it's a human reaction just to let down a little bit. Eventually you just lose a few matches, and you lose that edge. You win 12, 13, 14 majors, and you go to Cincinnati and you just don't have that drive anymore. It happened to me."
In the interest of history, let's review Federer's recent failures in majors. He lost four straight times at Roland Garros to Rafael Nadal, the last three in the final. He also lost to Rafa in their epic 2008 Wimbledon final and again in this year's Australian Open final. And then there was his defeat at the hands of Novak Djokovic in the 2008 Australian Open semifinals. So, doing the math, Federer has won eight of the past 14 majors since 2006, and those six misses have come in five finals and one semifinal; Federer has put himself in a position to win all those championships.
"I think I get the respect that I deserve," Federer said. "I hope at last they know how hard it is and difficult to play against all these guys. Because you have a little slip here or there, or you don't play maybe as well on those important points, you see how good all those guys are. Makes it hard to win all the time.
"I think people are OK with it. Maybe there was a time in 2006, 2007, when people just thought everything's easy, but it never is. It might look easy, but it's not."
Federer is the keenest defender of his legacy; he rarely misses an opportunity to set the public record straight. Federer, for one, says that he never thought he was finished.
"I thought I played great in Australia," Federer said after beating Gael Monfils in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. "For some reason, just because I lost in five, people think I played terrible at the Australian Open. It's not the case. I played great in Australia and ran into Rafa, who played phenomenal tennis. Many times I had the match on my racket, like against [Andy] Murray in Indian Wells, Djokovic in Miami and so forth, also in Rome.
"I think it would have been different if I would have lost first and second round all the time, but it wasn't the case. I always played semis or finals, basically. For this reason, I always knew there was no reason to panic."
When Nadal withdrew before the tournament began, Wimbledon was robbed of a potential encore of their sparkling 2008 final. That doesn't mean there won't be some drama on the way to No. 15.
In the semifinals, Federer would see Djokovic, to whom he has lost four of their past six matches and two in a row. Murray, his potential opponent in the final, has beaten Federer four straight times but never in a major.
"Thank God for me, I made it to the semis and finals almost every tournament I played, so I still had enough confidence," Federer said. "I guess I'm just a good enough player that I don't need to worry too much about losing in the early rounds.
"Still, the danger's always there, and that's why I play well."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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