Roger Federer began his quest for the French Open in earnest today in Monte Carlo. Roland Garros is the one Grand Slam he hasn’t won; conquering it would virtually seal his place as the best tennis player in history. So what was Federer’s body language like as he began another long slog up dirt mountain? After the first point, he gathered up the ball in the back of the court and began to move toward the service line to start the next one. On the way there, he nonchalantly bounced it between his legs like a point guard.
In other words, Federer was loose. That’s how he likes to be, and, paradoxically, how he concentrates best. Bjorn Borg retreated into himself on court, which fit his machine-like consistency; Rafael Nadal likes to constantly remind himself of his desire to win, and that fits his never-let-a-point-go approach; Federer floats closer to the mental surface. He’ll strolls around the court casually, smiles at anything amusing, throws out a sarcastic “whoo-hoo” after a bad miss. He wants to let his creativity flow, because he knows no one can match it. Watch his feet as he sets up to serve; his right foot touches the court, and in this case the clay, only at the very tip of the toe.
Borg and Nadal are the two best clay-court players of the Open era. They had grinding mentalities to match the style they needed for dirt. While Federer has been the second-best clay-court player in the world the last two years, he doesn’t have a clay mentality. He doesn’t dig into the dirt, grunt, grind—in that way, he’ll never be a clay-courter, no matter how many of them he beats.
Like Pete Sampras, Federer has too much game for clay. His shots are built to penetrate and his movement in transition allows him to close in and make the court smaller. The goal of the clay-courter is too make it bigger, longer, to open more space to loop the ball into. Today against Spain's Ruben Ramirez-Hidalgo, a true clay dog, it was clear that, Jose Higueras or no Jose Higueras, Federer wasn’t going to change that. He stood on top of the baseline and ran around to hit bullet forehands as always. But it didn’t matter what he did in the first set, because R-H was awful. He couldn’t sustain a rally long enough to develop any rhythm or get his feet into the match, and his service toss had a disturbingly Dementieva-esque quality.
Still, if someone’s tennis can be said to be “wiry,” it’s Ramirez-Hidalgo's. His trademark is his rolled-up sleeve on his right arm, the better to free it up for his stiff roundhouse forehand swing; it’s distinctive enough that Novak Djokovic made it one of his—admittedly more obscure—impersonations at the U.S. Open last year. I watched in horror a couple seasons ago as R-H hung on to beat Marat Safin in a third-set tiebreaker on clay, in the tennis equivalent of a prolonged suicide. He got his teeth into this match as well, cutting the errors out, surviving his service games, and whipping a couple nice passing shots past Federer.
Even positioned far behind the baseline, with Federer on top of his, Ramirez-Hidalgo maintained control of the rallies for nearly two sets. On hard courts, Federer can use a one-two punch—forehand into the corner, midcourt ball to the other corner—and be confident it will end the point. Not on clay, where opponents routinely slide toward that first forehand with time to spare and send a looping ball back deep. In these cases, Federer tends to pull the trigger a couple shots early, as if he’s not confident in his consistency. And it’s true, unlike the true clay lover, Federer doesn’t—or can’t—hit the ball to precisely the same spot over and over and wait. It’s not his game.
There was little sense of fear or nerves from Ramirez-Hidalgo as he built a 5-1 lead in the third. I got the feeling he thought he belonged there, that the aura Federer has had in the locker room had worn off to the point where even a confirmed 30-year-old journeyman no longer feared him. But I was wrong. R-H may not have feared Federer, but he feared the moment. On the other side of the net, Federer appeared listless and ready to pack it in during the third set. He drummed one backhand return into the bottom of the net at 1-3 and kicked the clay in muted frustration. Again, appearances were deceiving. He had a run in him.
The turnaround came with R-H serving at 5-2, 30-30. The Spaniard hit a hard shot to Federer’s backhand. Federer scrambled to get the ball back and made a little grunt—probably his first of the day—in the process. Ramirez-Hidalgo drilled the ball into the other corner, but Federer skimmed low over the clay, slid, and sent the ball back with a squash-style forehand. He eventually won the point after a feeble attempt at a drop shot by Ramirez-Hidalgo. Then he broke him seconds later with a crisp bullet forehand to the corner. The rest was pretty much academic. By the tiebreaker, which Federer won 7-1, Ramirez-Hidalgo was a broken man.
Federer was typically casual and sympathetic at the handshake. He looked at Ramirez-Hidalgo and gave a little shake of his head, as if to say, “Sorry, you had me.” Federer was back to his usual easygoing self. But for one moment, the key moment, when he was scrapping to stay in the match at 2-5, he got dirty. He dug, he grunted, he visibly fought. He played clay tennis.
After this escape, I expect to see Federer in the semifinals over the weekend, and look forward to seeing him get dirty a few more times this spring.