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Feat of clay

Without meaning any disrespect to Robin Söderling, he was really the least significant of Roger Federer‘s opponents at Roland Garros yesterday.

In no particular order, Federer was also battling:
Pete Sampras, whose record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles he was attempting to match
Andre Agassi, the only man in the past 40 years to win each of the four Grand Slam tournaments
Rafael Nadal, the Spaniard who had taken not only his number 1 ranking but also his aura of invincibility
– The Spanish spectator who decided to run onto the court and (non-violently) accost Federer early in the second set, an event which visibly unsettled him for a few minutes afterwards
– Himself, and the combination of weighty expectation and self-doubt which have hung over him since his defeat to Nadal at January’s Australian Open

In reality, despite his hugely impressive fortnight’s work, which included that stunning defeat of Nadal, Söderling’s best chance was that Federer would beat himself. In nine previous meetings – all defeats – he had only managed to take a single set off the Swiss.

Federer serenely raced through the first set 6-1, and despite his equilibrium being upset by the unwanted intruder – it took security an unforgivably long 18 seconds to stop him – he duly stepped up a gear in the second set tie-break, firing down aces on all four of his service points and winning three times against the Swede’s serve. In that moment, the championship was effectively sealed.

This was a good but by no means perfect display from Federer – if anything, his performance over the two weeks at Roland Garros has been the poorest we have seen from him at a Grand Slam tournament in the last five years – but it was still more than enough to deal with Söderling. Only once, serving for the match at 30-30, did he momentarily betray the immense pressure he must have been under, miscuing a chest-high volley which had more chance of hitting the Eiffel Tower than the baseline. But that was no more than a hiccup, and he closed out a 6-1, 7-6, 6-4 victory, achieved in under two hours.

With that, Federer became the sixth man – and, alongside Agassi, only the second since Rod Laver in 1969 – to have won each of the four Grand Slams, a feat which eluded even Sampras, Borg, McEnroe, Connors, Becker and Edberg. It was his 14th Grand Slam singles title overall (tying Sampras for the all-time record), in his 19th final (tying Ivan Lendl’s record).

Equally notable is Federer’s sheer consistency. He has contested the final of all but one of the last 16 Grand Slam men’s finals (his one aberration being the 2008 Australian Open, where he lost to eventual champion Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals). In a men’s field which boasts arguably greater strength in depth – and, in the form of Nadal, a nemesis every bit his equal – than at any time in the past 50 years, that is a remarkable achievement.

Now unshackled from the fear of failing to fulfil his destiny, don’t be surprised if he wins both remaining majors – Wimbledon and the US Open – this year.

Roger Federer may be number two in the current ATP rankings (which only take into account results over the last twelve months), but- if we didn’t know it already – he really is the number one player of this – or indeed any – era.

As the French would say: chapeaux.

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