Roger Federer has had the misfortune to be born at the same time as the best clay court player in the business, Rafael Nadal. Yet when you look at Federer’s record on clay in the past four years, it hasn’t been shabby.
Roger is lucky in that he has been able to win seven (and counting) clay court titles in his career so far. When you consider Rafa at the age of 22 has won a staggering 25 (and counting) clay court titles, Roger must feel like a bandit making off with seven.
What I like about Roger’s game on clay is that he has been able to adapt his game enough so that he has been able to show solid results on clay. He has clearly established himself as a solid No. 2 player on clay.
Ironically, he has been relegated to coming in runner-up on clay almost as long as Rafa served as the No. 2 player in the world in Federer’s shadow. Who says karma won’t get you?
Interestingly enough, Federer is one player who has had decent results on clay when you consider the clay court results of the following top players:
Pete Sampras: two clay court titles Ivan Lendl: 28 clay court titles
Andre Agassi: seven clay court titles Thomas Muster: 40 clay court titles
Stefan Edberg: three clay court titles
Boris Becker: no clay court titles
Of the above group, Lendl and Muster collected the most clay court titles: Muster mainly because he was the “Rafael Nadal” of his day—he was also left-handed and amassed a phenomenal clay court record comparable to Rafa’s—while Lendl excelled at being one of the fittest players on tour and usually outlasted his opponents.
Players like Sampras, Agassi, and Edberg played through the '80s, '90s, and this decade, and between them they only harvested 12 clay court titles. The French Open among all of the slams has the history of being the unkind slam to the top male players.
The women excluded, the top men historically have had bad luck when it comes to the French Open. History shows that the last American male who triumphed in Paris was Andre Agassi in 1999, while the last American female to triumph in Paris was Serena Williams in 2002.
The French Open bounty is usually collected by male players born in the Latin American region. So does this bode well for Federer, a Swiss-born male who knows how to play well on clay, but usually comes in second to Nadal?
There’s a story that Andres Gomez, winner of the French Open in 1990, always encountered the immovable force of Ivan Lendl every year in Paris, thus cutting off his pursuit of the French Open title. Lendl then began skipping Paris so that he could concentrate on winning Wimbledon, the one title to elude him in his career.
Andres Gomez took full advantage of this and went on to win the title at the age of 30, his only Grand Slam title, making him a member of the one-slam wonder club.
Federer has been encountering the same resistance every year at the French Open. Each of his losses in the past four years has been to Nadal. Rafa has drawn his line in the sand—if you want to win the French Open, you’re going to have to beat him to do it.
One would think after four attempts Federer would have formulated a game plan for beating Rafa, but it remains for Roger to figure out what he’s done wrong in four attempts. Not helping Roger’s case is the fact that Rafa has done a better job of adapting his game to surfaces other than clay and has now beaten Roger on hard court and on grass.
What Roger needs to do is to figure out what has gone wrong in his previous attempts to defeat Rafa on clay and formulate a winning game plan.
Will he ever win the French Open? I think if he stays out of rallies with Rafa, comes to terms with the left strokes coming high to his backhand, and practices more patience in rallies, he might have a chance. Typically, he gets into trouble playing Rafa on clay when he loses a long rally through too many unforced errors.
Patience and hunger are the keys to winning on the clay. Only then will Federer be able to lift the trophy in Paris.