Ralf Weber was probably the second happiest man in tennis after Roger Federer's exit from the French Open here on Tuesday night. Indeed, the German's pleasure may even have surpassed that of Robin Soderling, Federer's conqueror.
Weber is the tournament director of next week's Gerry Weber Open, which was founded by his father in Halle, central Germany, 17 years ago and has become a key part of Federer's preparations for Wimbledon. The world No 1 won the grass-court tournament four times in a row from 2003 and went on to triumph at the All England Club on each occasion.
Twice in the last three years, however, the Swiss has pulled out, exhausted by his runs to the final of the French Open. This year, having lost at the quarter-final stage, the Swiss looks certain to resume his traditional preparations for Wimbledon, which should make Ralf Weber's year.
In the aftermath of his defeat to Soderling, which ended his extraordinary run of 23 successive appearances in Grand Slam semi-finals, Federer was accentuating the positive. "This gives me the chance to take a breather and to have a couple more days to prepare for the grass-court season," he said.
Federer won Wimbledon in 2007 and 2009 without playing any grass-court tournaments in the build-up, but he knows he will be better prepared if he goes to Halle. Everything possible is done for the players' comfort: they stay at a hotel less than 100 metres from the venue, the practice grounds are hidden from public view and the courts are designed to feel like the All England Club's.
There is, moreover, nobody better at recovering from setbacks than the Swiss. Asked how long it took him to get over a big defeat, he once replied: "One hour I need, and then it's a different day and a different hour and a different match coming up. I don't bother to think too much about losses." As he reflected on his loss to Soderling here, Federer insisted: "You just take the defeat as it is. You don't think of the consequences. Then you move on."
Federer, as usual, will start as the favourite at Wimbledon, which begins in 18 days' time, although he may not go there as world No 1. Had he made tomorrow's semi-finals the Swiss would have been certain to top Monday's updated list – and thereby equal Pete Sampras's record of 286 weeks at the head of the world rankings – but if Rafael Nadal wins the title here the Spaniard will take his place.
Federer insisted he would take any dethronement in his stride. "Losing the top spot wouldn't be the end of the world," he said. "If I do lose it I'm sure I'll get it back soon – and that would be an even better feeling."
However, that could be wishful thinking because Nadal would have an outstanding chance to consolidate his lead at Wimbledon. While Federer will have to defend his ranking points as champion, Nadal can only profit, having missed last year's tournament through injury.
Might Federer be destined to remain for ever just behind Sampras's record number of weeks at the top? In recent times the Swiss has owed his ranking largely to the Grand Slam events as his title haul elsewhere has declined sharply. Between 2004 and 2007 he won 42 titles; in the last three years he has won only nine, including just one in 2010, at the Australian Open. If his Grand Slam consistency slips, so will his ranking.
However, the ending of Federer's Grand Slam semi-final record might hit him more. "It's been an amazing run," he said. "I think it started here when I lost to Gustavo Kuerten back in 2004. If I could have signed then for all those semis in a row, I would have done it right away. It's probably one of the greatest records I have."
Nevertheless, it would be foolish to write Federer off. He will be 29 in August, but remains supremely fit and has shown in the past that there is nobody better at bouncing back from defeat.
In 2007 some were questioning his future after he lost in successive Masters Series tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami to Guillermo Canas, but he went on to win Wimbledon, the US Open and the Tennis Masters Cup and reach the French Open final. In 2008 he lost his cherished Wimbledon crown to Nadal but responded by winning in New York. In 2009, after Nadal's Australian Open victory left him in tears and holding just one Grand Slam crown, the Swiss responded by winning the French Open for the first time and surpassing Sampras's total of major titles by winning Wimbledon again.
The staging of the 2012 Olympic tournament at Wimbledon is also a huge incentive. Although Federer won gold in the doubles in Beijing, he has never won the Olympic singles title – and there would be no better place to fill one of the only gaps in his CV.Reuse content