“Maybe it’s better if Rafa loses again, then everybody will stop asking me about it.”—Robin Soderling
It’s true, Robin, that with every match Rafael Nadal wins at Roland Garros, your one-of-a-kind victory over the Spaniard in 2009 becomes more mythical than marvel. But there’s another streak-snapping win the Swede posted in Paris that doesn’t get talked about as much. A year after Soderling’s legendary upset, he beat Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, marking the first time since the 2004 French Open that the Swiss failed to reach the semifinals at a Slam.
Federer’s 23 consecutive final fours will go down as one of the finest achievements in sports history. It’s hard to imagine any active player breaking it; Novak Djokovic had a run of 14 halted at the 2014 Australian Open. But in the same way Soderling’s conquest of Federer will be eternally overshadowed by his triumph over Nadal, the 17-time Grand Slam champion’s Jordan-esque level of consistency—it was 23 straight semis, after all—will be the second thing we think about when considering his CV.
Federer’s loss to Soderling not only knocked him out of Roland Garros earlier than expected, it seemed to leave a permanently lodged pebble in his Nikes. From that point on, Federer’s challengers believed that they were more than just bit parts in a two-week long performance. But no one could have envisioned what would happen at his very next Grand Slam match, on Centre Court at Wimbledon.
The scene was idyllic and familiar: Grass manicured as carefully as Federer himself; the summer sun glowing above; similarly warm greetings from the patrons for the defending champion. His opponent, Colombia’s Alejandro Falla, was more in his element on clay, and had just lost to Federer 6-1, 6-2 at a grass-court tune-up. With everything to lose and little to gain, the first round of a major can be nerve-wracking for top players, but for Federer, it’s traditionally been nothing more than a welcome party.
Falla’s invitation got lost in the mail. His compact backswings and flat shots were well-suited to the slick turf, and he used them to snag the first two sets of the match. The heavy underdog even served for the match in the fourth set, but Federer rallied just in time, breaking serve and then winning a tiebreaker to force a fifth. He won that deciding set, 6-0, which symbolically might suggest that order had been restored. But it was clear that the near-invincible Federer we had known for the previous five-and-a-half years was gone forever.
Since Federer’s loss to Soderling at the 2010 French Open, he has been eliminated before the quarterfinals at a major four times, most recently at this year’s Australian Open, by Andreas Seppi in the third round. But let’s also remember this: In that same span, Federer has reached 10 Grand Slam semifinals, three finals, and won one title, at Wimbledon in 2012. He’s done this despite an obvious dip in form from his peak years (roughly 2004-2009), advancing age, and improved play from his main rivals, Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Furthermore, every time it seems that Federer’s career will careen off course, he invariably makes the proper adjustments. The 2013 Grand Slam season, in which Federer took defeats in the second round of Wimbledon and the fourth round of the U.S. Open, seems like a distant time ago.
Today’s 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 win over Falla seems like the beginning of Federer’s latest rebound from an early Slam exit. Falla never threatened Federer like he did on that memorable Monday at Wimbledon; the No. 2 seed dictated most of the rallies with his forehand, served efficiently (he faced just two break points), and more or less treated the red dirt like a red carpet.
“I love coming here,” Federer said after the routine win. “I wasn't broken. I’m happy.”
Federer must be happy with his draw as well. He’ll next face either Marcel Granollers (3-0 career record) or world No. 125 Mattias Bachinger (has never played). He won’t have to face a seeded player until at least the fourth round, with Marcos Baghdatis’ upset of No. 25 Ivo Karlovic. And, of course, he wouldn’t have to face Nadal or Djokovic until the final, should he make it that far. Regardless, it’s more likely we’ll be watching Federer play in the second week, rather than bidding adieu to him in the first.
Federer’s golden years don’t compare those of Andre Agassi or Serena Williams, who both cases played their best tennis after turning 30. But at 33, Federer’s sustained run of excellence, if not omnipotence, shouldn’t be overlooked. On the five-year anniversary of Federer’s superb Slam semifinal streak coming to an end, I’d argue that we’re not only undervaluing that record run, but also undervaluing what he’s done, and continues to do, since.
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