Ronald Atkin: Federer focuses on long road to Laver territory

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The Independent Online

Amid the cascade of adulation threatening to engulf Roger Federer again as he moves relentlessly in pursuit of his 10th Grand Slam title was one highly significant endorsement. It came from Rod Laver, reckoned by many to have been the greatest male racket wielder of all, in the aftermath of the Amiable Alp's dismemberment of Andy Roddick in the Australian Open semi-finals.

Never renowned as a tootler of his own trumpet, Federer let on that Laver had popped into the dressing room beneath the stadium named in his honour to congratulate the Swiss on an "excellent" performance. Many were busy reaching for more resounding adjectives, among them the devastated Roddick himself, but coming from the great Rodney George Laver, the Rockhampton Rocket who has not only done the Grand Slam but done it twice, it was particularly cherished, or as Federer gently put it, "nice to hear".

"Best of all time" is a phrase increasingly linked to Federer's name as he chomps away at the milestones of the sport, but the man himself will have none of it. While not foolish enough to deny his own current pre-eminence, the 25-year-old points out the distance still to be travelled: as he got out of bed this morning there were five more Grand Slam titles to be annexed before he could draw level with Pete Sampras's 14, and three more years to go to equal Pete's mark of ending six straight years as world No 1.

Federer's count of 45 titles is impressive, but Jimmy Connors has 108, while Roger's personal high-water mark, set last year, of 92 wins in a season falls 14 short of Ivan Lendl's 1982 record. Then there is the matter of Laver's Grand Slam years of 1962 and 1969, though one mark which will fall to Federer next month is Connors' 160 consecutive weeks at No 1.

Federer came closer than anyone since Laver by figuring in all four 2006 Grand Slam finals and winning three, losing only to his clay-court nemesis, Rafael Nadal, at Roland Garros. That was the one Grand Slam final lost out of the 10 he has reached since the initial biggie (Wimbledon 2003). Today he embarks on another bid to emulate Laver's 1969 all-four mark, facing Fernando Gonzalez of Chile in the year's first major. Victory over the man he calls "Fiery Fernando" will lift Federer to equal fifth among the all-time Slam winners with Bill Tilden, on 10. After that there remain just Laver and Bjorn Borg (11 each), Roy Emerson (12) and Sampras to be overhauled.

All the signs are that Federer will be in double figures by around lunchtime in Britain. He has won all nine of his previous matches against Gonzalez, conceding just two sets, and en route to today's final has lost no sets and 58 games, compared to the Chilean's four sets and 85 games. Another straight-sets demolition would make Federer the first to capture a Grand Slam without conceding a set since Borg at Roland Garros in 1980.

With reason, Federer is confident, though he admits: "I always go into matches thinking, well, this might not work out." So far in Melbourne, everything has worked out just fine. So dominant has Roger been that he has opted to experiment in the heat of battle on perceived weaknesses such as his volleying.

Nor has he bothered overmuch with what Martina Navratilova used to call "a coterie". His fitness trainer, Pierre Paganini, is, says Federer, "back home, skiing", while his strategy talks with his coach, Tony Roche, are "pretty brief". He explains: "I don't need a hundred thousand words of advice, just a few things to remember and I'm OK. The rest I do myself out on court."

One tactic Federer will not employ this time is to sit back and wait to assess Gonzalez's plan of attack, as he did in last year's final against Marcos Baghdatis, when he dropped the first set before winning in four. He has known the Chilean since they were juniors, and respects his deserved reputation for hurricane hitting and new-found ability to play all-court tennis. "I just hope Fernando doesn't have one of those days where he plays incredible."

The arrival last May of Larry Stefanki, who had previously coached Marcelo Rios to a brief spell as the world No 1 as well as Tim Henman and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, has transformed Gonzalez. "I used to have a big hole on my left side," he said, in reference to a weak backhand. "Now I don't have it. I am more fit and on my forehand I feel I can do whatever I want. I can go in, I can slice, I can do all the things I never did before."

To reach his first Grand Slam final he has seen off the likes of Lleyton Hewitt, James Blake and Nadal, still shattered from his epic encounter with Andy Murray. At least the blue shirt with a large white slash favoured by Gonzalez, uncannily like the saltire, will remind us all of what might have been if Murray had seen off Nadal.