Roger Federer: The grass master set to take his place at history's top table

His favourite event, his favourite surface. The No 1 seed talks to Ronald Atkin about that Borg milestone and his rivalry with Nadal
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The Independent Online

Mention the name of Bjorn Borg and there is a moment's pause, an intake of breath and then Roger Federer pronounces this opinion: "For me, he is one of the top three greats of all time." Why, then, does Federer regard the overtaking of Borg's record of 41 straight victories on grass, which he is on course to achieve tomorrow, as no more than a foothill in the Alps of tennis landmarks?

Acknowledging that winning 42 in a row on the green stuff would be "quite incredible", Federer insists: "For me, honestly, it doesn't mean too much. Breaking streaks is not what I am playing tennis for. Somehow, they don't turn me on. It's nice to equal or beat Borg's record on grass, it all sounds great, but I care more about the opponent I beat and the tournament I am playing."

Borg, of course, won all his 41 in the course of clocking up five consecutive Wimbledons before losing in the final of the sixth, whereas Federer's 41 have come via three Wimbledons and four annexations of the top prize in the German grass-court event at Halle. Well aware that purists may regard this as a lesser sort of 41, Federer offers the tongue-in-cheek opinion, "You could say that mine was maybe even more difficult," before adding, "but I don't think so."

When it is pointed out gently that winning 41 matches on whatever surface is, as our American friends might put it, awesome, the Swiss giant concedes: "Streaks definitely put you up there with the best in the game, the all-time greats, and that's always nice, absolutely." What about the possibility of a fourth straight Wimbledon then, Roger? Is that a foothill, too? "That is different," he says, garlanding the opinion with a smile. "That is something extraordinary. I was already happy with two, even more happy with three.

"Now the fourth might be coming along I just don't know what to say. The preparation has been good, the feeling is good and now I am looking forward to seeing how it goes again, because that opening Monday is pressure and I hope I can survive it." Failure to survive the first day of the 120th Championships as the holder, as Manuel Santana and Lleyton Hewitt famously did in the past, would register very high on the Federer Richter Scale, him being such a careful fellow with an ultra-professional back-up team.

The preparation he talks about has this year meant him coming straight from winning Halle and basing himself in London for a week ahead of The Big W. "Previously, I used to go home to Switzerland to take a rest after Halle. Now I rest where the tournament is being played. I feel it is the right preparation, it gives me enough days to prepare and to knock off all my sponsors' and media commitments. It is impor-tant that when the weekend comes around there is nothing on my mind to worry about, so that I am ready for the Monday." Federer is talking in the wake of a presentation at Chelsea Harbour by Nike, the people who clothe him on court and who are introducing a new shirt with the latest keep-cool devices specially for Wimbledon. It surely seems an unnecessary precaution for someone who has not yet been observed to break a sweat on Centre Court, so majestic is his reign at the cathedral of tennis.

So does he regard himself as invincible on grass? "I definitely don't take any matches easy, I prepare as best I can and respect my opponents, because I know anybody can be beaten on any day. That's the mindset I have to give myself.

"Of course, there are matches when I know I won't lose because I am just a better player on the day - 'This guy has nothing to hurt me with', stuff like that. But that is not only on grass. I feel that way on any surface, and that's my strength, I think, that I am so good on all surfaces that I get the feeling on all of them, not on any one in particular.

"Actually, on grass I feel it's more difficult to be unbeatable. If you get broken, to come back into the match is a little more complicated because the surface is so much quicker. If the other guy serves well and you don't get back into your rhythm, it's very difficult." So perhaps that is why our hero is not one of those who wants to see the grass season extended. "A week more here or there, perhaps, but I am happy with the way it is. It has been like this for a long, long time, it is short, sweet, and you can enjoy it. For me, that is OK."

Everything has been more than OK this season for Federer, with the exception of his encoun-ters with that pesky youngster from Majorca, Rafael Nadal. Set against the 49 matches and five tournaments he has won in 2006 so far are four losses, all suffered to Nadal, three on clay and one on a hard court in Dubai.

Discounting what he regards as a temporary inability to get past the Nadal threat, Federer is entitled to regard himself as someone about to take a seat at the historic top table of tennis. "This year has been my best season so far," he says, "winning the Australian Open and getting to the final of the French. Now, Wimbledon is coming up, maybe my biggest chance to win a Slam.

"I definitely think this might be as good as I have ever played. Look at the number of ranking points I have, I don't think I have ever had that amount of points, and if I look forward to the next 12 months, all I have to do is defend titles and victories, not the easiest thing to do. It is quite incredible that I did this, me and my team, and that I have to do it all over again to stay on top. To also have my own Foundation [in South Africa] and to be international goodwill ambassador for Unicef, I feel this is my prime time at the moment."

At the age of 24, with seven Grand Slams and 30 other titles already amassed and people assembling on the sidelines to hail him as moving fast towards being the sport's best-ever (though he calls himself "just a little cookie" compared to the game's greatest), Federer remains refreshingly gobsmacked about being mentioned with other sporting giants like Tiger Woods. "He is very charismatic, he has brought something new to golf, and that's what I try to do with tennis also, with the beauty of my strokes. I have had many compliments over the years, but to be compared to any other great sportsman is for me a big honour because I look up to Tiger, Schumacher, all these other great athletes. You think, jeez, I never thought I would be compared to them. I am a big sports fan, so to be considered on the same level as those guys is great."

It would have been unnatural if Federer had not been shaken by what became summary defeat at the Roland Garros final earlier this month, wrecking his ambitions of becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four major titles at the same time.

"It took me a very short time to get over it," he claims. "Maybe because I thought the run of three Grand Slams in a row, followed by a final in the fourth, was so fantastic that there was no need to be disappointed. I did better than in Paris last year [when he went out in the semi-finals, also to Nadal], and I lost to the better man on the day. When I woke up on Monday, I thought, 'OK, it's a pity, but the grass is coming up' and I wasn't too disappointed because my season has been absolutely fantastic and I am very happy with my form at the moment."

Federer has been honing that form in practice at Wimbledon with his coach, Tony Roche, in readiness for tomorrow and Richard Gasquet, who took him to three tough sets in Halle. Then could come Tim Henman, of whom he admitted an early Wimbledon clash would be a worrying thing. The biggest challenges, though, are expected from Andy Roddick, runner-up for the past two years, and Hewitt. "They are the guys with the greatest experience on grass after [Andre] Agassi, but he is short of matches." He acknowledges the threat of Mario Ancic, the last man to beat him at Wimbledon (in the first round four years ago), but readily agrees he relishes whatever challenge is thrown at him right now.

"In the number one position you have to go through that. I have had some good battles, with Agassi, with Hewitt, with Roddick, with [Marat] Safin, now with Nadal. Those matches against fellow top 10 players are always opportunities to show that you are better than the other guy." And what better place to demonstrate that superiority than his favourite tournament?

"All my heroes came here and won, and I always wanted to play on that court and be like them. It is thanks to people like Becker and Edberg that I started playing. For me, all the emotions in tennis come basically from Wimbledon. That's why no other tournament can beat it, that's why I am so happy to be back."

Back with a purpose, too, since Roger Federer closes the chat with the opinion: "I feel like I could do it all over again."

Life & Times

BORN: 8 August 1981, Basle, Switzerland.

VITAL STATS: 6ft 1in, 12st 9lb.

TURNED PRO: 1988.

RANKING: No 1 since Feb 2004.

TITLES: Singles: 38, including Wimbledon 2003, '04, '05, Australian Open '04, '06, US Open '04, '05. Finalist in French Open '06. Doubles: 7.

HIGHLIGHTS: Youngest player to enter top 100, 18 years 4 months '99. ATP record 78 match wins '03. ATP record 11 titles in 11 finals, including three Grand Slams '04. First player in Open era to win first 4 Grand Slam finals '04, first to win 24 finals in a row '04-05. Laureus World Sportsman of the Year '04.

CAREER EARNINGS: £12,806,335.

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