Three Down, One to Go: Can Roger Federer Claim the Elusive French Open Title

Matthew SchiffmanAnalyst IMay 22, 2008

With the 2008 French Open only a couple days away, there are plenty of storylines heading into the tournament. 

Rafael Nadal looks for his fourth straight title in Paris, where he has never lost.  Novak Djokovic is out to prove that he belongs in the discussion of who the best player in the world is.  Andy Roddick will be absent from the tournament, but the rest of the Americans want to show that they can compete on clay.  And one of the biggest storylines: Does Roger Federer still have what it takes to be No. 1 in the world?

In Paris, Roger Federer will be chasing the elusive French Open, the one Slam missing from his résumé.  Here are four reasons why Federer will and will not win the French.

Why Federer will not win in Paris:

Rafael Nadal—a.k.a the King of Clay. Nadal’s record on clay is unbelievable.  He has lost twice in his last 110 matches played on clay. Even more impressive is Nadal’s record at the French Open, where he has never lost, claiming the title three years in a row. As if those statistics aren’t impressive enough, the main reason why Nadal is first on this list is the fact that every year he has won the French Open, he has beaten Federer. In 2005 he beat the world’s No. 1 in the semifinals. Then, Nadal took down Federer in the final in 2006 and 2007. It appears that in order for Federer to have a chance at this title, he needs to avoid Nadal. That will be difficult considering that Nadal is about as invincible as humanly possible on clay courts.

Lack of confidence—Federer would probably never admit that he doesn’t believe he can win a tournament, but that would be hard to believe when one looks at his past results at the French. Over the last three years, Federer has been unable to overcome Nadal. In the years prior, Federer’s clay court game had not yet blossomed. So, it may be bad timing, but Federer has had his chances. In the 2006 final, Federer won the first set convincingly 6-1. Then he dropped the second 6-1 and lost the next two sets.  Just a week ago at the Hamburg Masters Series final, Federer led Nadal 5-2 in the first set before dropping five straight games to lose the opening set 7-5.  He responded by winning the second set in a tiebreak, which was played because he let another lead slip, but went on to lose the match in the third. Federer is 1-8 against Nadal on clay, with the lone win coming at Hamburg in 2007. But the clay at Hamburg is drastically different from that in Paris, which leads us to our next point.

Surface—Not only does Federer not enjoy clay, but he especially lacks on fast clay, which just happens to be the surface that the French Open is played on.  Federer’s one clay win against Nadal came in Hamburg because the clay there is slow, so it does not allow Nadal’s heavy topspin forehand to jump up on Federer’s backhand as drastically as it does on fast clay. With Federer’s one-handed backhand that is prone to break down against Nadal’s forehand, the clay in Paris poses all kinds of problems for Federer. As a result, he ends up having to slice and chip his backhand far more than he wants, which is no danger to Nadal and allows him time to set up his next shot, or he is forced to come over the ball with his backhand as it is bouncing up around his shoulders, which is probably one of the hardest shots in tennis.  As if playing the French on clay wasn’t enough, the surface is fast and gives a distinct advantage to Nadal.

Young talent—This year, Federer will not only be worrying about Nadal, but he’ll have to take notice of guys like Novak Djokovic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils, just to name a few.  The men’s tennis game is probably deeper now than it ever has been. There is an abundance of young talented players from all over the world right now. Mix them in with the veterans like Juan Carlos Ferrero, David Ferrer, David Nalbandian and Nadal (if we can call him a veteran at the age of 21) and this year’s field proves to be one of the toughest.  If Nadal and Federer play up to their respective levels, we can expect to see them on the final Sunday of the tournament. But, as Federer’s match with Janko Tipsarevic at the Australian Open proves, one slip up and anybody can be sent home.

If Roger Federer reads this article he will be happy to know that the negatives are now finished.  Now onto the reasons why Federer will win the French Open.

Jose Higueras—Federer hired Higueras for one reason: to win the French Open.  Federer has to be given credit because this is definitely the right move.  Sure, Federer has been more successful at the French than Higueras ever was, (Higueras’ best result was reaching the semifinals in 1982 and 1983) but Federer is also much more talented than Higueras was.  Higueras is Spanish, so he grew up on clay and obviously knows a thing or two about playing on the surface.  Michael Chang hired Higueras as coach and with him Chang won his only major in 1989.  Coincidentally, it was the French Open.  Higueras also coached Jim Courier to No. 1 in the world and has worked with the likes of Pete Sampras, Carlos Moya and Guillermo Coria. Higueras has the résumé, now we just have to wait and see if he is the answer that Federer has been looking for.

Low expectations—It seems that every year heading into the French Open people are asking whether or not Federer can finally claim the French Open and, with it, the Career Slam.  This year, however, that is not the headline.  Justine Henin stole coverage from Federer by announcing her retirement from tennis at the age of 25. Novak Djokovic has also stolen some thunder by playing some awe-inspiring tennis thus far in 2008.  Federer has also contributed to the lack of talk about the possibility of him holding all four slams by playing poorly so far this year.  Federer’s results, which include only one title, have people asking if Federer can return to his “old” ways, rather than if he can actually win the French.  Flying under the radar could be one of Federer’s best tactical moves in his career.

Freshness—This could be extremely important this year.  To date, Federer has played eight tournaments in 2008, the same number he had completed last year heading to Roland Garros.  The difference is that this year he has only won one tournament.  Yes, that factors into the aforementioned category of Lack of confidence, but it also means that Federer has played less tennis.  He should be fresher coming into the French.  By now, Federer is recovered from his illness and has played plenty of tennis on clay.  Surprisingly, his one win this year was on clay.  So after recuperation and limited action on the court, Federer should be feeling fresh and ready to play on the grueling red clay.

Competitiveness—Obviously Federer is a competitive guy.  There’s no other way for someone to get to No. 1 in the world in anything unless he is competitive.  But this year, fuel has been added to the fire.  At a press conference recently a reporter asked Federer if he thought he might be over the hill.  Federer’s response?  “Next question.” 

Having always been known as a nice, relaxed, and patient person, especially with the media, this shows what Federer thinks about the talk concerning his play recently.  Federer knows he’s not even close to being done. In fact, he has always voiced his desire to play competitively into his 30’s. Now, Federer wants to prove to the rest of the world that he still has plenty left in the tank. And what would be a better way to make that point than by completing the Career Slam with a win at the French Open?