After his shaky start to 2008, Roger Federer was supposed to be in serious trouble as the scene shifted to clay.
His reign atop the game may still be in jeopardy. A five-match winning streak and his first title of the year at a small Portuguese tournament (Estoril) last week proved little else than that he felt he needed extra court time and a confidence boost before the big clay events.
But the people who expect a rash of bad results in the next month don’t appreciate how good Federer has been at finding ways to win on the red stuff. Take away the superhuman abilities of Rafael Nadal, whose game is suited better for a high-bouncing, slow surface than anyone in history, and Federer has been nearly as unbeatable on clay as hard courts in the last four years.
Six players have dispatched him on clay since he won his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 2003. Aside from Nadal, only two have beaten him since he won his second Wimbledon in 2004 and truly separated himself from the rest of the field. One of them, Richard Gasquet, saved a match point with a passing shot from 10 feet behind the baseline in the 2005 Monte Carlo quarterfinals, a loss Federer avenged in the final of Hamburg a month later.
The other, Filippo Volandri, rolled over him in the Round of 16 at Rome last year when he was distracted by his deteriorating relationship with soon-to-be-fired coach Tony Roche. Even if you consider that rationalization rubbish, the loss was no worse than his early-round defeat to Dominik Hrbaty in the first round of Cincinnati in 2004. No one pegged that anomaly as a sign of his impending doom on hard courts.
Clearly, Federer is the third-best clay-court player of his era, trailing only Nadal and Gustavo Kuerten. Consider his accomplishments:
His first Masters Series title came on clay, when he crushed Marat Safin in the 2002 Hamburg final. He has won Hamburg three more times and owns a 17-match win streak there, including a 6-0 blitzing of an exhausted Nadal in the third set of the final last year.
He has reached the finals of Rome and Monte Carlo, the other two Masters Series clay tournaments, twice each, losing to Nadal on three of those occasions.
He has never lost on clay to Guillermo Coria (2-0 when Coria was still Coria), Nikolai Davydenko (3-0), David Ferrer (3-0), Safin (3-0), Carlos Moya (3-0), Fernando Gonzalez (4-0), Gaston Gaudio (2-0), Juan Carlos Ferrero (3-0) and Tommy Robredo (3-0). That’s an astounding 26-0 mark against the best clay-courters of the last six years not named Nadal.
Even David Nalbandian, who owned Federer early in his career and again late last year, has not beaten Federer on clay since Monte Carlo in 2002, although he appeared to be wiping Fed off the court at Roland Garros two years ago before succumbing to his 945th injury.
Federer’s never won Roland Garros, but he is a hundred times better on European clay that almost all the other greats who failed to complete a career Grand Slam at the French Open. John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras would have been lucky to take a set off him in Paris or Rome.
The next month should be very revealing. if Federer has a couple more Volandri moments, the observers who see real cracks in his game will be validated. If he returns to his anyone-but- Nadal victory march, his illness of the first few months no longer will be seen an a lame excuse.
Although Fed had mono at the beginning of the year, anyone hoping he will fall from No. 1 may soon be sick.
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