Federer in with a great shout at Roland Garros
He will make history by equalling Pete Sampras' major haul if he finally takes French Open crown
Roger Federer always looks on the bright side. Even after the heaviest of defeats against Rafael Nadal, his greatest rival, he usually insists that he has learned something new and will be better equipped for the next time he plays the Spaniard. If Federer broke his last racket he would no doubt see it as a good chance to try playing with his bare hands.
The Swiss plays his 19th Grand Slam final today, equalling Ivan Lendl's all-time record, and victory over Robin Soderling would see him equal Pete Sampras' milestone of 14 major titles. However, it has not been an easy path.
This was the first Grand Slam tournament in which Federer reached the semi-finals with only two straight-sets victories under his belt. He came from two sets down to beat Tommy Haas, a set down against Paul-Henri Mathieu and struggled in four sets against Jose Acasuso. In his semi-final he needed three and a half hours and five sets to overcome Juan Martin del Potro.
Needless to say, the former world No 1 sees his trials of the last fortnight, during which his acclaimed forehand has at times looked as flaky as a freshly baked croissant, as a positive experience. "It feels great coming through tough matches like this," he said.
"It's more emotional. It's more satisfying, even though I love matches when I can really dominate an opponent. It's a great feeling to come through like this because you have to show different qualities. That's not something I've always had the chance to show because matches have sometimes been over too quickly. It's good for me. Hopefully I'll have a longer career because of those matches. I still feel fine, you know."
Mental strength has long been recognised as a key part of the Federer package, but this tournament has also underlined his physical prowess. He comes off court after a five-set match here looking as though he has just been for a stroll through the Bois de Boulogne.
Del Potro had conceded only one set on his way to the semi-finals – Federer had dropped four – yet by the end of their match it was the 20-year-old Argentinian rather than the 27-year-old Swiss who could barely put a first serve in court and was looking for winners with almost every shot in an attempt to keep the rallies short.
While Federer works without a permanent coach these days, his fitness trainer, Pierre Paganini, has always been a key member of his entourage. "I work extremely hard when I'm away from the tournaments," Federer said. "When I'm at the tournaments I pace myself, because it's most important that I'm rested. I'm more laid back because I've already put in the hard work once I get there."
Federer dug the foundations for his Roland Garros work with gruelling four-hour practice sessions at the start of the clay-court season. "I was getting used to the sliding, the longer rallies, serving for a long time, running around for a long time, just trying to create a match situation like a five-setter at the French Open," he said. "I had a good clay-court preparation and it's nice that it has paid off."
Will Federer miss Nadal, his conqueror here in the last three finals and in the semi-finals the year before that, on the other side of the net? "Not really," he said. "I've played against him 20 times, so it's always nice to play against somebody else. I'll still play against Nadal several times in the future. I'm happy to play against someone else."
Federer has beaten Soderling nine times out of nine, most recently in Madrid last month, and has dropped only one set along the way. This will be the 24-year-old Swede's first final on clay, but in beating Nadal, Fernando Gonzalez, Nikolay Davydenko and David Ferrer, four of the game's best players on terre battue, he has scaled new heights. Soderling had never gone past the third round of a Grand Slam tournament in 21 previous attempts.
His big serve and thumping ground strokes have been the keys to his success, along with renewed self-belief. The 24-year-old was singled out as a major prospect when he was a teenager, but growing up in a nation that produced legendary players such as Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg cannot have been easy.
However his fellow countryman, Magnus Norman, a beaten finalist here nine years ago, has worked hard on Soderling's mental approach since taking over as his coach at the start of the year. The world No 25 has gone into all his matches believing he has a real chance of victory.
"I always knew before that when I play well, when I play my best tennis, I can beat anybody," Soderling said. "Now I feel like I've played very, very good tennis for many matches in a row. It's great to have a coach who used to play. He's been in the position I'm in right now."
Head to head: Federer leads 9-0
2004 Toronto (hard court, Masters Series 2nd rnd) Federer 7-5 6-1
2004 Bangkok (hard, quarter-final) Federer 7-6 6-4
2005 Halle (grass, 1st rnd) Federer 6-7 7-6 6-4
2006 Madrid (hard, Masters Series, 3rd rnd) Federer 7-6 7-6
2008 Miami (hard, Masters Series 2nd rnd) Federer 6-4 3-0 retired
2008 Hamburg (clay, Masters Series 3rd rnd) Federer 6-3 6-2
2008 Wimbledon (grass, 2nd rnd) Federer 6-3 6-4 7-6
2008 Paris (hard, Masters Series 2nd rnd) Federer 6-4 7-6
2009 Madrid (clay, Masters Series 2nd rnd) Federer 6-1 7-5
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