Forgotten man Federer is one step away from proving true greatness
The Swiss master back to best ahead of Nadal final clash for the ages, writes Mark Hodgkinson
Before this tournament began, you heard as much about Roger Federer as you would about someone in the Basle witness programme. When one bookmaker offered odds of 14/1 on Federer being presented with La Coupe des Mousquetaires, it hardly attracted comment, since everyone was too busy discussing how well Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic were hitting the ball, and which one of those two would win the title. The most successful man in the history of tennis, a winner of 16 Grand Slam titles, was half-forgotten, more than a little unloved and unappreciated.
Wagging an index finger in the gloom on Friday evening, after a magnificent defeat of Djokovic in the semis, was not the behaviour of someone who cares for anonymity or the crowd's indifference. The Parisians, previously a touch cool about Federer at this French Open, remembered during that semi-final why they have always adored the Swiss.
By producing sodium-white flashes and bursts of the Roger of old, by demonstrating that you do not have to load up YouTube and search for clips of years past to still see him hitting some astonishing shots, Federer has reached his first Grand Slam final for more than 16 months, and he will play Nadal at a major for the first time since the 2009 Australian Open.
Though rain is forecast, today promises to bring a bit of a retro feel with a Roger-Rafa final, as well as Federer's opportunity to win a 17th Slam and what some would call his first 'proper' French Open title.
Though Federer is a former champion in Paris, with a triumph two years ago which gave him a full set of Grand Slam titles, he won that tournament without having to beat Nadal, who had lost in the fourth round, the only time the Majorcan has ever been beaten at these championships.
A personal view is that a French Open title is a French Open title, and Federer can hardly control who ends up on the other side of the net, yet some would doubtless contend that defeating Robin Soderling in the final hardly carries the same weight as going through Nadal, someone the locals affectionately call 'L'Ogre'.
Until Federer, who turns 30 this summer, beats Nadal on the terre battue of Roland Garros, there will be quibbles against his claims to true greatness, suggestions that he only has a 'soft' French Open title in his collection, that he might never have completed his career slam if Soderling had not upset the odds and cleared the Spaniard from the draw.
If Federer were to beat Nadal, all that nonsense would stop. This final also has consequences for Djokovic -- should Federer prevent Nadal from equalling Bjorn Borg's record of six French Open titles, he would become the No 1 for the first time.
Throughout this tournament, Federer has consistently played better tennis than Nadal has. Probably the finest performance of this French Open so far, by any player, was Federer's when he ended Djokovic's unbeaten run at 43 matches and six months, though it should be noted that the Serbian, who did not play his best, could have made it very interesting had he successfully served out the fourth set.
Federer, seeded outside the top two for the first time since the 2003 Wimbledon Championships, has already done enough in Paris to excite his public, his followers in 'RF' caps, about what is to come at the end of the month on the grass of Wimbledon.
"Shh, quiet, genius at work," read a banner in the crowd the other night.
"Whoever thinks it's going to be in a walk in the park against Rafa is so wrong," said Federer, and you would not find anyone at Roland Garros who considers that it is going to be anything resembling a stroll in the Bois de Boulogne for the world No 3. Everyone remembers what happened on the previous occasions that these two have played at Roland Garros. Nadal beat Federer in the 2005 semi-finals, and in three finals from 2006 to 2008. The last of those was so lopsided -- Federer won only four games and was 'bageled' with a 6-0 third set -- that it was widely supposed at the time that he would never win in France.
Yet the impression during those years was that Federer almost cared too much about winning the French Open, that he had become obsessed and distressed with how he was ever going to defeat Nadal. But perhaps now Federer can play with greater freedom and enjoyment against Nadal.
This will be Federer's first Grand Slam final since beating Andy Murray in last season's Australian Open, yet it feels as though there is less pressure on the Swiss than ever before on prize-giving day.
Few imagined that Federer would reach a fifth French Open final, and most in the crowd today will assume that they have come to see Nadal falling on to his back on the clay in his trademark celebration.
Federer is never going to walk out for a Grand Slam final with a complete absence of pressure and expectation loaded up in his racket-bag, but it will probably never be as light as it will be this afternoon. The Swiss has lost the last three Slam finals he has played against Nadal (at the 2008 French Open and Wimbledon Championships, and the 2009 Australian Open). His last victory against the Spaniard in the final of a major was at Wimbledon in 2007.
This was not the final that many in Paris had been expecting, or wanting, as they would have felt the ideal conclusion to this tournament would be to see Nadal trying to fend off Djokovic, the player who had beaten him in straight sets in the final of the two warm-up tournaments in Madrid and Rome.
If Nadal today becomes the champion again, perhaps some will want an asterisk attached to this match -- that Federer did Nadal a favour by beating Djokovic, just as Soderling once helped the Swiss.
Sunday Indo Sport