Federer to fight pressure of proximity to exclusive club

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In Fred Perry, Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras, Wimbledon's rich history has a legend, a master and a titan. Since the 1930s, they are the only three men who have won three consecutive singles titles at The Championships. Now Roger Federer is one tournament win away from joining their exclusive club.

In Fred Perry, Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras, Wimbledon's rich history has a legend, a master and a titan. Since the 1930s, they are the only three men who have won three consecutive singles titles at The Championships. Now Roger Federer is one tournament win away from joining their exclusive club.

Can he do it this fortnight? Yes. All the evidence says so, and I'm sure that 99 per cent of people agree (the other one per cent are busy having their heads examined).

Federer, the sublimely gifted Swiss, is on a heck of a roll. He's lost only three times in his last 71 matches. On grass, he has not lost since 25 June, 2002, when Mario Ancic beat him in the first round at Wimbledon. Since then, Federer has won 29 of 29 matches on the green stuff, 14 of them at The All England Club to win titles in 2003 and 2004, and 15 at Halle for three titles, 2003-2005.

He has no weakness, no serious ones at any rate. He has an array of strengths, from the quality of his serve, to his devastating forehands, to his lightning-quick mind (and feet).

However, as I make Federer my tip for the 2005 title, it is important to put his achievements in some historical perspective, and also consider why he might - and it's a small might - fail.

First, perspective. Sampras won seven Wimbledons, in eight years. Borg won five, in a row. Rod Laver won four altogether, John McEnroe three, Boris Becker three and John Newcombe three. Federer has two so far. The pressure starts here. The biggest obstacle is not necessarily going to be individual opponents, but the record. The weight of history can be a burden.

Federer has borne that weight superbly so far. He turns 24 in August and already has won four Grand Slams. Borg won nine Slams before his 24th birthday, Sampras six, McEnroe four and Connors four, but no one else in the Open era beats three.

But I saw something in Federer in his French Open semi-final defeat to Nadal last month that I haven't seen in him in recent years. He seemed a little confused, fearful even. He kept feeling his eyes, and the heat, at least metaphorically.

His serve broke down. His forehand broke down. Why? I don't believe that technical faults were the cause, rather they were a symptom. What happens on the outside reflects what's happening inside. And maybe, just maybe, he allowed the notion that Nadal is a serious challenger to his supremacy to unsettle him.

As a coach I have huge sympathy for Roger's coach, Tony Roche. Federer had no coach last year and won three Slams. If he keeps winning, people will say it would have happened anyway. If he doesn't, Tony is the scapegoat. He might even be thinking, 'Is it something I've done?'

I suspect he's technically done very little. There's no need. But if I had to guess at tiny bits of advice, I'd guess the following might be possible. Slightly less swing for low balls on the grass court for the first week. When you're tired, force yourself to move your feet more, not less, to push through it. Never be complacent about court strategy. And, on the evidence of the Paris semi, use more follow-through on the serve for a more emphatic contact point.

Two things jumped from the stats of the Paris defeat. Federer made 62 unforced errors. That's huge, and down to confidence, and not controlling play off Nadal's return of serve.

And on serve, he hit around 60 per cent of first serves in, which is fine, but won only 63 per cent of them, by far the lowest of any of his matches. I'd interpret that as a lack of conviction.

Against Federer's record, this is picking at straws. But defeats show he is human, he is beatable, and that gives the other 127 contestants hope.

It will be fascinating to see Nadal's progress on grass. We, the tennis public, would love a serious, high-quality rivalry to develop between him and Federer, even if Roger wouldn't. Great rivalries thrill us, compel us. We pick our sides and sit back and watch the fireworks including the tournament directors, television and sponsors.

Nadal is a special player, a leftie, a free swinger who hits the angles. He loves excitement, experimentation. But he can't slide on grass. His type of ball may not penetrate to stay low enough. He needs to work on the slice serve to the ad court that made McEnroe so dangerous. And he doesn't want to play six feet behind the baseline. His first few matches will be intriguing, especially an opener against the hard-hitting Vince Spadea, who beat him the last time they played in Barcelona.

Andy Roddick has to be a title contender. Lleyton Hewitt, if fully fit, has got wonderful footwork and the experience. Mario Ancic is capable of upsets. Ivo Karlovic can blow anyone away on the right day.

And then there's Tim Henman. With my sentimental favourite, Andre Agassi, out of contention, from the bottom of my heart I'd love Henman to win. I actually think it's over for Tim. (Here's hoping that reverse psychology helps him!). But I would say to everyone in Britain: get off the poor guy's back. He's done wonders for years and he doesn't need to carry 60 million people on his shoulders. Ignore his chances. Let him play expectation-free. It could do a world of good.

The women's singles is wide open. Maria Sharapova has the game, if healthy. Justine Henin-Hardenne's tennis suits grass, and she's my pick, although she too needs to be fit. But Kim Clijsters is a fighter, you discount the Williams sisters at your peril, Lindsay Davenport will want to be in the shake-up, and a Slam win for Amélie Mauresmo is long overdue.

Nick Bollettieri will be writing for The Independent throughout Wimbledon

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