Last American in Paris has fabulous Federer in sights

No US male player had made the last 16 at Roland Garros since Agassi five years ago – until yesterday. Ronald Atkin reports
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The Independent Online

The attempts of the tournament schedulers and the Paris weather to insult Roger Federer, the top seed at the French Open, were dissipated by a sunshine show of sensational tennis last night. Federer's match against Croatia's Mario Ancic was the last of the day planned for Court Philippe Chatrier and when Federer finally got on it was past six o'clock on grey, chill evening which gradually turned to a rainy gloom. None of this prevented Federer, playing his best tennis of the tournament by far, winning 6-3 6-4 6-2 against a man who remains the last to beat him at Wimbledon, back in 2002.

Since then, including last night, Federer has conquered five times. There was never a hope of Ancic rewinding the clock six years once Federer had broken early in the first set. He won that set in half an hour and needed only five minutes more to take a throttling grip by going two sets ahead as the crowd, huddled under umbrellas, cheered him on.

The longer it went, the more imposingly brilliant the Swiss became. A single point was dropped in a breathtaking sequence of six service games, one of three of the eight third round men's games to be sorted out in straight sets. Being the person he is, Federer was able to concede, "I was very pleased the way I played." He also thanked the punters: "The people stayed very late tonight, they stayed for me and that's nice because they wanted to see me play."

In such conditions it was just as well there was a heart-warming story or two to illuminate the weekend's action. So step forward Robby Ginepri, former boyfriend of Minnie Driver, who is a slightly bewildered American tennis hero today by virtue of having reached the fourth round of the men's singles. Those who may shrug and say "so what?" should pause to consider that here last summer not one of the nine American men managed to get past the first round. It is not that tennis on clay is an un-American activity, just that they are pretty awful on it at the moment. Andre Agassi won here in 1999, as well as Jim Courier (twice) and Michael Chang of recent memory, but the last American – until Ginepri yesterday – to survive into the last 16 at Roland Garros was Agassi in 2003.

In five previous attempts, Ginepri had never got past the first round in Paris. Now he is preparing to face Fernando Gonzalez for the chance of a quarter-final against Federer, the man who, if you listen to some, snaffled Ginepri's coach, Jose Higueras, to help him through the clay court season.

Having seen off France's Florent Serra 6-4 6-4 6-4, Ginepri was at pains to correct that impression: "I was in Jose's office at Smoke Tree Ranch in Palm Springs when he let me know. I was actually excited that he could get an opportunity like that, to work with Roger. He pointed out that if I wasn't okay with it then there was no way he was going to take the job. He told me I was going to be his number one priority. A few people started saying Jose dumped me, but he didn't. He's still 100 per cent behind me."

What has happened is a dramatic turnaround in Ginepri's fortunes. In 2007 he won only 11 matches and finished out of the top 100 for the first time since 2002 and by January this year had sunk to 171. Now he will be back in the top 60. "As the last American guy still standing, it's a good feeling. I'm trying not to let that weigh on my shoulders too much. I know what I have to do, aI'm going to have to do it."

What Ginepri is going to have to do first is to clock up a first-ever win over the Chilean Gonzalez, who has beaten him three times in the past. For a long time it seemed Ginepri's opponent would be the second most famous tennis player in Switzerland, Stanislas Wawrinka, who for two and a half sets against Gonzalez was Alp-like in his solidity. With Wawrinka two sets and a break up, Gonzalez suddenly found the range with his famous forehand, recovered the break and won the set and when Wawrinka called in the trainer to treat his right thigh in the fourth set there could only be one outcome, Gonzalez coming through 5-7 2-6 6-4 6-4 6-4.

Here's another story to warm the heart. When the Spaniard David Ferrer struggled on first joining the men's tour in 1999, he turned his back on the game and went to work as a building labourer. The change of career lasted a week, and now Ferrer is ranked fifth in the world.

Opposed to him in yesterday's third round was that familiar Aussie fighter, Lleyton Hewitt, who was appearing in his first tournament since early April due to a left hip injury. Playing through the pain, Hewitt found himself trailing by a set and 3-0 until, like Gonzalez, he suddenly found his game and shocked Ferrer by taking six straight games and then winning the third set, too.

But handicapped by the hip pain, Hewitt was beaten in five, 6-2 3-6 3-6 6-3 6-4, and said: "It was pretty sore from the third set onwards, so it's still not 100 per cent, but hopefully in a couple of weeks this sort of match will have helped me going into Wimbledon. That's the biggest positive I can take from today."