Federer 'sad' about Nadal's absence

Updated: June 20, 2009, 8:35 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

WIMBLEDON, England -- Roger Federer is building something of a reputation as an on-court weeper, and he remembers well the first time he cried after winning a match.

I feel like I've got the game, I've got the mental approach and I've got the experience . . . to win at Wimbledon many more times. But I'd like to get this one, this year.

-- Roger Federer

It was July 2, 2001, at Wimbledon, the tournament that means more to him than any other. Federer was 19, up-and-coming and making his Centre Court debut in the fourth round when he stunned Pete Sampras, who was 29, seeded No. 1 and seeking an eighth Wimbledon title.

"I used to cry almost after every single match I lost as a junior. It's not at all a feeling like it's the end of the world -- of course not, because tennis is not everything -- but some people can control it, some people can't," Federer said. "Crying after a victory is something that started when I beat Pete."

Back then, Federer had yet to reach the semifinals, let alone win a title, at any Grand Slam event. Eight years later, as Wimbledon begins Monday with a roof over Centre Court for the first time, Federer arrives at the All England Club bidding to break Sampras' career record of 14 major championships.

And the complexion of Federer's pursuit of a sixth Wimbledon title changed significantly Friday: He doesn't have to worry about dealing with his nemesis, defending champion Rafael Nadal, who withdrew from the tournament because of tendinitis in both knees.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty ImagesRoger Federer's tears at the French Open this year were of joy, as he finally conquered the clay.

Nadal's exit was the talk of the grounds Saturday, and Federer called it "very disappointing for the tournament, and also for myself."

"It's unfortunate. I'm sad for him, because it must have been a very difficult decision to make," Federer said. "I'd love to play him. He's my main rival. We've had some wonderful matches over the years, and especially the one here last year was the one that obviously stands out."

Ah, yes, last year, when Nadal reduced Federer to tears by winning the longest singles final in tournament history, a 4-hour, 48-minute test of skill and will that ended 9-7 in the fifth set as darkness descended.

That 2008 setback ended Federer's streaks of 40 consecutive wins at Wimbledon and 65 in a row on grass, and he is ready to start anew.

"The focus is on the first round -- and the first point," Federer said. "Trying to regain my Wimbledon crown, I guess, stands over trying to beat Pete's record right now."

On the day Federer won at Roland Garros, Sampras said he expected Federer to get No. 15 "in the next couple of weeks." Asked whether he would travel to the All England Club this year, Sampras replied: "We'll sort of see what happens."

Many current players figure Federer is set to re-establish his supremacy at Wimbledon. As 2002 champion Lleyton Hewitt put it: "Roger's going to be the one to beat."

Federer is focused on adding to his haul of major championships. He bawled during the postmatch ceremonies after another five-set setback against Nadal at the Australian Open this year, then shed tears of joy when he won the French Open.

Now comes Wimbledon.

"I do think I'm the favorite, actually, with the success I've had and how close I came again last year," said Federer, whose wife is due to give birth to their first child this summer. "Without any disrespect to any of the other players -- because I think this year's field is going to be very difficult to topple."

Those words were spoken before Nadal became only the second Wimbledon men's champion in 35 years to decide not to defend his title.

Federer said the rivals chatted briefly Wednesday, and Nadal congratulated him for winning the French Open.

"I asked him how his knee was. He was, like, 'It's OK.' So I kind of knew it wasn't great, because he's very honest to me," Federer said. "So I knew something could be coming up."

Federer had other men in mind, too, such as Andy Murray, the 22-year-old from Scotland who gives local fans a real chance for the first British male champion at the All England Club since Fred Perry in 1936.

Murray reached his first Grand Slam final at last year's U.S. Open, and he showed how his versatility is growing by making the French Open quarterfinals. Then, as if the expectations and pressure weren't going to be onerous enough during Wimbledon, Murray went out and won the grass-court tournament at Queen's Club last weekend, making him that event's first British champion since 1938.

"The buildup beforehand is a little bit more stressful than other tournaments," Murray said, "but once it starts, it's like all the other Slams."

In running down the list of contenders, Federer also named two-time Wimbledon finalist Andy Roddick (although that was before the American hurt his foot at Queen's Club), 2008 Australian Open runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and French Open runner-up Robin Soderling, who ended Nadal's 31-match winning streak at Roland Garros.

Still -- and especially with Nadal out -- it all comes back to Federer, even as far as he is concerned.

"I feel like I've got the game, I've got the mental approach and I've got the experience ... to win at Wimbledon many more times," Federer said. "But I'd like to get this one, this year."