Sampras in Federer's sights after the fall of Paris
Swiss equals Grand Slam record at last with emotional first victory at French Open
A chill wind swirled around Philippe Chatrier Court as rain fell from a leaden sky over a damp squib of a match, but for Roger Federer there was only beauty in the air. The 27-year-old Swiss has always been aware of his place in the history of the game and his victory over Robin Soderling in the final of the French Open here yesterday will surely have convinced all but the most cynical of doubters that he is the greatest player ever to have picked up a racket.
In overwhelming Soderling 6-1, 7-6, 6-4, Federer equalled Pete Sampras' all-time record of 14 Grand Slam titles and became only the sixth man to win all four of the game's major tournaments. Appropriately enough, it was the last to achieve the feat, Andre Agassi, who handed over the Trophée des Mousquetaires. Agassi, too, is the only other player to have won the four tournaments on three different surfaces. When Fred Perry, Donald Budge, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson did so, three of them were played on grass.
After losing three French Open finals in succession to Rafael Nadal, the last of them the heaviest defeat of his Grand Slam career, Federer must have wondered if he would ever claim the one jewel missing from his crown. When Nadal went on to beat him in the finals of Wimbledon and the Australian Open, on the surfaces on which he had hitherto reigned supreme, the Swiss might have started to think that Sampras' record might also remain forever beyond his grasp.
Federer, however, always retained his belief. Would he have won here had Soderling not triggered a sporting earthquake by ending Nadal's 31-match unbeaten run at Roland Garros last weekend? We shall never know, of course, but the question is ultimately irrelevant.
The Swiss has shown several times over the last fortnight that his ice-cool temperament and ability to turn adversity into triumph are just as important as his magical touch with the racket. In reaching 18 previous Grand Slam finals the former world No 1 had never before had to win two five-set matches.
Yesterday's victory was almost as crushing as Federer's defeat by Nadal in the final 12 months ago, when he won only four games in an hour and 48 minutes.
Soderling, who lasted only seven minutes longer, must have felt like the only gatecrasher at the world's biggest party. The 24-year-old Swede, who had never gone beyond the third round of a Grand Slam tournament before his extraordinary run here, received polite applause when he entered the stadium, while Federer was greeted by an eruption of noise. The crowd here love the Swiss, a fluent French speaker who does everything with the poise and elegance of the most chic Parisian, and throughout the match there were chants of "Roger! Roger!".
While Soderling looked nervous from the start, Federer was immediately into his stride. The Swede won just five points as Federer took a 4-0 lead and won only six more as the Swiss took the first set in 23 minutes.
Thunder had been rumbling around Roland Garros and early in the second set rain started to fall. Blankets and raincoats would probably have been more appreciated than the straw hats guests were given in the President's Box and umbrellas were soon going up all around the court.
It was in the fourth game of the second set that an intruder ran on to the court. Federer looked shaken and immediately lost three points in succession as Soderling levelled at 2-2.
When he won the first point of the next game there were huge cheers from a relieved crowd and Federer was quickly back into his stride. The Swiss served beautifully, never lost the rhythm on his forehand as he had in some earlier matches and played some exquisite drop shots, a tactic that he had long eschewed but which has been one of his favourite ploys here.
Soderling, who later admitted that he had not been aggressive enough, hung on to force a tie-break, which Federer won 7-1, hitting aces on all four of his service points. Federer broke in the first game of the third set. In the fourth Soderling forced his first break point, which Federer saved, to raucous applause, with a forehand winner.
At 5-4 and 30-30 Federer tried to serve-and-volley, only to hit the ball long. Soderling, however, wasted his second break point with a miscued forehand before Federer put away a volley to create match point. When the Swede's next service return flew wide, Federer sank to the floor, cupping his head in his hands.
The tears started to flow during the presentation ceremony, particularly when the Swiss national anthem was played, but by the time Federer picked up the microphone to make his victory speech he had regained his composure. It was a moment he might have feared would never happen and the smile on his face showed that he was enjoying every moment of it.
Swiss watch: Grand Slam record
*WINNERS OF ALL FOUR SLAMS
(won his fourth at French Open 1935)
Donald Budge ......... (French Open 1938)
Rod Laver ......... (US Open 1962)
Roy Emerson ......... (Wimbledon 1964)
Andre Agassi ......... (French Open 1999)
Roger Federer ......... (French Open 2009)
*Leading gRAND SLAM WINNERS
Roger Federer & Pete Sampras ......... 14
Roy Emerson ......... 12
Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver ......... 11
*FEDERER v SAMPRAS
Federer's 14 Grand Slam titles:
Australian Open 2004, 2006, 2007
French Open 2009
US Open 2004-2008
Sampras' 14 Grand Slam titles:
Australian Open 1994, 1997
Wimbledon 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997-2000
US Open 1990, 1993, 1995, 1996, 2002
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