Roger Federer doesn't want to offend Rafael Nadal, the man he acknowledges as the king of clay, but the world No 1 believes that winning the French Open can be less than a full test of a man's tennis.
"On clay you don't need to have a volley," Federer says. "You almost don't need to have a serve. All you need to have is legs, an incredible forehand and backhand and to run things down. I'm not trying to take anything away from Rafa, because he's an exception and he did everything on other surfaces as well, but I think you can get away with having problems with your game on clay more than you can on other surfaces.
"On a hard court you can lure a guy in and do many more things. You almost have to have more feel. On clay, I don't want to say it's too simple, that you just have to keep the ball in court and wait for a mistake, but sometimes it's too easy."
Had he made these comments 12 months ago Federer might have been accused of sour grapes. The French Open, which begins here tomorrow, was the only Grand Slam title he had never won, Nadal having beaten the Swiss four years in succession at Roland Garros. Today, however, Federer is the defending champion, even if he did not have to beat his greatest rival in order to claim the final jewel in his crown, Robin Soderling having knocked out Nadal in last year's fourth round.
When he talked about the French Open in the past you sometimes sensed a certain edge in Federer's voice, a slight unease about his repeated failures to win here. Now, sitting at a table in the shade as fellow players walk by, he seems more relaxed and happy to talk about his past disappointments on clay.
Last year was Federer's 11th attempt to win in Paris, which had always proved a bigger obstacle for him than the other Grand Slam tournaments. He has won six times on the grass at Wimbledon and five and four times respectively on the hard courts of New York and Melbourne. Just as other current players might consider themselves unlucky to be competing in the Federer era, so the Swiss has had to meet the challenge of playing at the same time as Nadal, one of the greatest ever exponents of clay-court tennis.
"I don't think my problem was clay, even though there were lots of people who said that clay wasn't my best surface," Federer says. "Of course it's not, because I've won Wimbledon six times and the US Open five times in a row, but I'd always thought I could win the French Open. My problem, of course, was Rafa. The guy is unbelievable on clay. Some people don't want to believe it, but unfortunately that's the truth for a big generation of players on clay, because I can also play on clay and so can [Novak] Djokovic, so there isn't much room at the top."
Clay places huge demands on a player's stamina. Because the ball comes off the surface more slowly than on a hard or grass court, it is much harder to hit winners, making the rallies noticeably longer. Coming to the net with the intention of finishing off a point more quickly can be perilous because it is harder to hit a damaging approach shot and you can become a sitting target for the opponent firing bullets at you from the baseline.
A different mindset is therefore required: you need to be patient and prepared to hit several shots to create a winning position rather than one or two. That is a particular challenge for a naturally attacking player like Federer. "The reason why clay has not been so easy for me is that on the other surfaces I can play my game without thinking," Federer said. "Everything happens naturally. I can turn defence to offence when I want to and how I want to. When I play well I know I can dominate players."
Federer admits it has taken him time to find the best way to play on clay. "I had to learn how to control my aggression, because I love to finish points quickly. On hard courts and grass I love to play aggressively [and win points] in a couple of shots. That's the way we play.
"On clay it's not that easy. You can do it on 50 per cent of the points, but the other 50 per cent you'll just donate to your opponent because you'll be taking too many chances. I had to learn how to play from far back in the court and to use the angles better, when to attack. It was more of a geometry lesson for me.
"The more I played on clay the more I started to understand the game on clay, even though I had great potential. If you play the wrong game on clay and play well, you can still lose. You have to play smart as well. It's something I had to get really used to, especially when I was coming up against the best player like Rafa."
Talking a good game on clay is one thing, but beating Nadal on his favourite surface is another. Federer has lost 10 of his 12 matches against the world No 2 on clay, most recently in the final of the Madrid Masters last weekend. His French Open performances against the king of clay hardly offer encouragement either. The most recent, a 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 mauling in 2008 in the most one-sided final at Roland Garros for 31 years, was the biggest defeat Federer has ever suffered in his 222-match Grand Slam career.
While Federer's clay-court form this year has been patchy – before Madrid he lost to Ernests Gulbis in his first match in Rome and to Albert Montanes in the semi-finals in Estoril – Nadal has been flying. Having gone 11 months without a title as he struggled to overcome a succession of injuries, he arrived here having won all 15 of his matches on clay this year and become the first man ever to win all three Masters Series titles on terre battue in the same season.
In winning in Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid, Nadal dropped just two sets. The only possible source of encouragement for opponents from those tournaments was that Federer was the only top 10 player the Spaniard had to beat. During his lengthy barren run Nadal struggled against the better players, losing 12 out of 14 matches against opponents from the world's top 10.
Would winning a second French Open title have a different taste for Federer if he were to beat Nadal in the final? "No other Grand Slam victory will ever feel the same way that my first French Open did," Federer said. "It's the one I was chasing and that I was preparing for. I wouldn't say that I was secretly preparing for it, but I was doing build-ups in February so that I would be ready for, say, the fifth set of a French Open semi-final against Del Potro.
"For it all to pay off was an amazing feeling. I always knew that I could do it at the French, but actually to achieve that gave me incredible satisfaction. I always hoped that I would do it by beating Rafa, but you can't choose who is on the other side of the net. You can only beat who is there."
With Andre Agassi, the last man to win all four Grand Slam titles, on hand to present the Coupe des Mousqetaires here last year, Federer felt that destiny played a part in his triumph, along with his own unquenchable desire to win in Paris.
"My biggest strength and my key was being able to handle the pressure and believing year in, year out that I had a chance to win the French, even though Rafa crushed my dreams many times on clay. You can get demoralised quickly. All of a sudden the travelling becomes harder than it actually is and you forget about the winning, you only deal with losing. It's hard when you lose in the French Open final and you know that you then have to wait a year and then win six matches and two and a half sets to get to match point. It's very difficult.
"Of course, you then go on to grass and you forget about clay, but in the moment itself it hits you extremely hard. If the season starts badly you might start to think: 'I might have played my best tennis on clay. From now on it's downhill.' But I never had that feeling. I always had the feeling that I was getting better every year."
He adds: "My first French Open victory was something pretty close to destiny. Andre was there to present me with the trophy and to say: 'You really deserve it.' That was like destiny. I feel that I've given so much over so many years in Paris."
Federer believes his dogged determination to win here is also one of the reasons why he has always had so much support from the crowd, who have been curiously ambivalent in their support for Nadal.
"They appreciate my efforts in showing up every year and trying to give my best," Federer says. "In the past they felt: 'Well, he tried, and that's all he could do because Rafa was superior.' They can accept that. But I think they respected the fact that I kept coming back and kept having a try."
Roger v Rafa in Paris: The Statistics
2005 Semi-final (Nadal won 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3)
Nadal, in his first French Open, celebrated his 19th birthday by reaching the final, making better use of his break points.
2006 Final (Nadal won 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6)
Federer, who had not lost in his seven previous Grand Slam finals, made a scorching start before Nadal took over. Federer broke when Nadal served for the match at 5-4 but could not maintain his fightback.
2007 Final (Nadal won 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4)
A close contest. Federer had 17 break points but took just one of them. Nadal converted four of his 10 opportunities.
2008 Final (Nadal won 6-1, 6-3, 6-0)
Federer kept attacking but was repeatedly beaten by Nadal's passing shots and lobs. As the match progressed Federer's mistakes multiplied, even from his formidable forehand.Reuse content