Grand young man of Basle
Roger Federer looks capable of winning the year's big four titles, says Jon Henderson
Sunday May 23, 2004
Self-assessments are not necessarily the best assessments, tending to lack objectivity. On the other hand, when they are accurate, they can be piercingly so, as in the case of the following from Roger Federer: 'I'm not going to start praising myself, but for me the game feels natural.
'I'm living when I'm out there. I feel when a guy is going to hit the ball, I know exactly the angles and the spins. I just feel I've got it figured out. It is a huge advantage.'
Federer was speaking straight after winning this year's Australian Open final, his pronouncement as worrying to his rivals as the manner in which he had swept aside Marat Safin in straight sets. Safin, who had beaten the defending champion, Andre Agassi, in the semi-finals, was effortlessly destroyed by the 22-year-old from Basle.
Federer speaks of the facility with which he plays the game so matter-of-factly, and with such an absence of bombast, that it is impossible either to take offence at what he says or dismiss it as just talk. It is rapidly becoming clear that the extent of what he achieves is likely to be limited only by his one obvious fault: a tendency to allow his mind to wander. He is so at ease with playing the game that he does not always apply himself with the necessary rigour.
The lapses in his form this year have included losing to Tim Henman in the quarter-finals in Rotterdam in February, after which Federer graciously commended the British number one on his fine play without convincing anyone that the better player hadn't won. He did that a month later when he saw off Henman 6-3 6-3 in the final of the Masters event in Indian Wells, California.
The high points of his year have included those title wins in the Australian Open and Indian Wells and, most pertinently with reference to the French Open, his victory a week ago over the Argentine Guillermo Coria in the final of the Hamburg Masters. Coria had been unbeaten on clay since last year's French Open and would have been a scalding-hot favourite for Paris this time had he beaten Federer.
Instead, Federer overran Coria after conceding the first set and launched into another over those disarming analyses of the state of his game. 'I am surprising myself right now,' he said. 'I know I have ability but this is just incredible. I am winning every third tournament I am playing at the moment, which is pretty crazy.'
With only one of the 2004 grand slams played, already the talk is of Federer winning all four to become only the third male in history to do so in a calendar year. Paris, where he has lost in the first round on three of his five previous visits, is in theory the hardest of the quartet for him to win, the number of shoulder-high hits he has to make not suiting his game.
It is difficult to oppose him, though, after he put Coria in his place so emphatically a week ago and with Juan Carlos Ferrero, the defending champion, having had a wretched time recently. Ferrero may be a state-of-the-art dirtballer, as an American publication tagged this normally reliable clay-court player recently, but, having lost his past two matches on the surface and having withdrawn from Hamburg with a wrist injury, it seems inconceivable that the Spaniard will come out on top if he faces Federer in the semi-finals on Friday week.
A triumph at Roland Garros and Federer will be looking to complete the third leg of the grand slam at Wimbledon, where he was so magnificently invincible last year. Beyond that it's the US Open, where the hard courts with their reliable bounce are arguably his best surface. It is entirely possible that he can do what even Tiger Woods has not managed to achieve in golf, win the big four events in the same year.