So the dark period lasted only two months, but boy, was it brutal. Like Winter in Antarctica – even a few minutes are enough to kill you. And although “slump” would seem an extreme descriptor for such a brief period in the career of any other top player (especially while playing on their least favorite surface), for someone as consistent as Roger, it was appropriate. He was booted by Canas twice in two weeks, dismissed by Rafa in straights in Monte Carlo and then humiliated by a rangy Italian in the third round of Rome – no wonder the message boarders had started proclaiming that “the end of the Federer era!” was nigh.
Oh, but how quickly things change: After Roger’s defiant (and dare I say ballsy win over Rafa today in Hamburg, the only person saying goodbye to Federer is Tony Roche.
I watched the Hamburg Final in L.A. at 5a.m. on my computer. My husband and I groaned through the first pitiful set – “Wake up, Roger, wake up!” and then hubby fell asleep and Roger finally opened his eyes. Thank goodness I kept watching! Our man shaped up that oft-errant forehand, held firm at the net, grooved on his first serve and, in the end, smacked the gold crown right off of that roguish King of Clay
It’s an historic day for Roger, Rafa and the fans – hell, it’s even notable enough to pull me out of my own blogging slump.
So how’d he do it? When Roger was asked after the match about the tactics he’d employed, he claimed that his plan was to play well – noting that he’d been “waiting” for this to happen all along when meeting Rafa on clay. Rog also allowed that Rafa might have been ever so slightly tired. (Well, yeah, maybe, considering the kid had made it to five masters series finals in a row – Pac Life, Miami, Monte Carlo, Rome and Hamburg — and bit the Waterford at the end of four of them.)
What a lame answer, right? It plays right into what the Wilanders of the world have been saying ever since Roger withered on the terre battu at last year’s French – the guy doesn’t have the balls to take it to Nadal on clay. At the very least, it indicates that Rog’s too prideful to admit that he’d actually need something as pedestrian as tactics to beat Senor Dirtballer Supremeo. Could this, in fact, be a clue to why Rog sacked Roche – “enough with your tiresome tactics, Tony, I’m just going to go out and play well, instead?” Well, whatever, it worked.
One thing that hasn’t been working lately is Roger’s famous forehand (see today’s first set for numerous instances of the ball thunking against the frame of his K-factor.) Any “playing well” strategy for Roger would mean getting this shot under control. And Roger eventually did that. But how about the BACKHAND? Even in the first set, Roger’s one-hander was pretty solid. By the end of the match, Roger was hitting screaming winners on that side. I don’t know enough to comment on how Rafa’s ball may have differed in spin, depth or power from the ball he dealt Roger in last year’s French Open final, but I do know that Roger’s backhand has become more consistent and much more lethal than it was back then. This bodes well – if Roger can keep the forehand fierce and the backhand solid, I’d say Rafa is looking at a far more formidable opponent at Roland Garros.
And this is what it all comes down to for Roger and the fans, isn’t it? Roland Garros. Sure, there’s Sampras’s record of 14 majors, an elusive Gold Medal, and even the opportunity to exceed Borg’s five consecutive Wimbledon titles. But winning the French – and getting the chance to go for the Grand Slam – would be the quickest and most satisfying path to being crowned the Greatest of All Time. With his win today, Roger has the keys to the kingdom. Now all he has to do is open the damn door.