In the eyes of many he is already the greatest player ever to pick up a tennis racket and tomorrow Roger Federer will have the chance to convince all but the most hard-hearted of doubters.
For four years in succession Federer’s hopes of winning the French Open, the only jewel missing from his Grand Slam crown, have been dashed by Rafael Nadal, one of the finest clay-court players in history, but now the only man standing in his way is a 24-year-old Swede who arrived here a fortnight ago as one of the game’s journeymen.
Given his extraordinary results of the last fortnight you would write off Robin Soderling at your peril, but the contrast between the finalists could hardly be greater. Soderling, who yesterday added Fernando Gonzalez’s scalp to those of Nadal, Nikolay Davydenko and David Ferrer when he beat the Chilean 6-3, 7-5, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4, had never gone beyond the third round in 21 previous appearances at Grand Slam tournaments.
Federer, who beat Juan Martin del Potro 3-6, 7-6, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4 in an even more dramatic semi-final, is chasing a victory that would see him equal Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles. It would also put him alongside Fred Perry, Donald Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Andre Agassi as the only men to have won all four majors. His appearance in his 19th Grand Slam final equals Ivan Lendl’s all-time record and he has failed to make only one of the last 16, when he was suffering from glandular fever in Australia last year.
Had it not been for Soderling’s exploits of the last fortnight you would dismiss out of hand the Swede’s chances of winning tomorrow. The world No25 has lost all nine of his matches against Federer, winning just one set along the way, but he is promising to go into the final with the positive approach that has reaped such rich rewards. “As I said before the match against Nadal, if I don’t believe I can win there’s no point going on the court,” Soderling said. “I think I have a chance. I’ve lost to him a lot of times, but they have been close matches.”
Federer, who has lost the last three finals here against Nadal, insisted there were “no easy Grand Slam finals” and added: “You always know the player on the other side of the net has also won six matches and is in the shape of his life.” The world No 2’s form, moreover, has wavered. Jose Acasuso and Paul-Henri Mathieu took him to four sets and Tommy Haas led him by two sets to love.
Del Potro had not won a set in his five previous matches against Federer, but the 20-year-old Argentine is a growing force and played superbly. Using all of his 6ft 6in frame, the world No 5 served with awesome power until the latter stages and was not broken until the fourth game of the fourth set. His game, built on huge ground-strokes struck from the baseline, may be one-dimensional, but he gives the ball a mighty whack and makes few mistakes. Del Potro had to save break points in his first two service games, but from 2-2 he raced away with the first set.
In his next three service games Federer was broken to 15, held after trailing 0-40 and was broken to love. If the match had a turning point it might have been at the start of the second set tie-break. On the first point Federer hit a defensive lob which Del Potro could have put away with a smash, but instead he took the cautious option by letting the ball bounce and put his subsequent forehand into the net. Federer took the tie-break 7-2 as Del Potro, having shown no sign of nerves, now made a succession of errors.
His response, nevertheless, could not be faulted as he took the third set by breaking in the first and seventh games. Now it was Federer’s turn to fight back, levelling the match by taking five games in succession to win the fourth set. By this stage fatigue was starting to creep into Del Potro’s game and Federer broke in the opening game of the decider. Although the Argentine broke back to level at 3-3 his serve was starting to fall apart – “I was feeling tired and tense,” he admitted – and in the following game he served a double-fault on break point.
He saved Federer’s first match point at 3-5, but on the second in the next game the Swiss hit a forehand winner. The 15,000 spectators in Philippe Chatrier Court erupted in celebration. The Paris crowd love Federer for his elegance and class and he can be certain of their support tomorrow.
Bjorn Borg, who had sent Soderling a text message to thank him for stopping Nadal’s attempt to break his record of four successive victories here, was in the crowd as his compatriot became the seventh Swede to reach the French Open final. Gonzalez, with his forehand misfiring, looked a shadow of the player who had beaten Andy Murray in the quarter-finals, though he dug in to take the third and fourth sets, winning both by converting his only break points.
Soderling, in contrast, struck the ball with the freedom he had shown in his previous matches here. His big serve and booming groundstrokes are his greatest weapons, but what remains to be seen is whether he has the nerve for an occasion that promises to be one of the greatest in French Open history.