How a year can turn things around.
A year ago there were questions as to whether the mighty Federer could ever equal Sampras' Slam record.
Was he simply past his prime? Overtaken by the young generation who beat him on a regular basis, not least Nadal who had prevailed over the Swiss in three Slams finals within a year, two of them being instant classics.
Long had Federer fought and kept the young challengers at bay. But now, they seemed to have his number almost every time they met. "Thank god, the hard court season is over,” declared the punished eight-times hard court slammer after Miami last year.
Then came the turnaround in Madrid, where Federer took out Nadal in straight sets on his home turf employing a wiser tactic against him by going around his backhand more. People were surprised by the win, but not astonished. Nadal was fatigued after the four-hour rally against Djokovic and the high altitude and quick clay surface. It wouldn't influence on Roland Garros, after all Nadal had never in his life lost a best of five clay match.
Then the sensation, the never imagined.
The tall Swede Robin Söderling fired bullets against Nadal, dictating the master around the court for four sets. One always suspected Nadal to somehow pull it through, bu he didn't. Söderling was on a roll and his bullets remained within the lines throughout the match. Three matches later, Federer took him out in straight sets without much stress to gain his missing trophy.
”You know, every time I played Roger, after the match I always said, I played so bad today. Now I learned that it's not that I played bad, he makes me play bad," the respectful runner-up said.
The rest? We all know the story. Federer regained his Wimbledon title and number one ranking as Nadal was taking time off to heal his overburdened knees. He lost the five-sets US Open final to the young canon who had blasted Nadal out of the semis (6-2, 6-2, 6-2), partly
because he insisted to try to out-blast Del Potro.
He didn't seem too bothered though. Now a father and a Slam record holder, he was much
more at ease with himself and with the eventual loss here and there. Could he uphold his motivation? Oh yes, more so than ever as Murray came to know in Australia, where Federer released some of his best tennis on Murray.
A relaxed and confident Federer is a dangerous Federer.
A year can certainly change a lot. Now towering at 16 Slam titles, people are not asking if he can ever win another Slam, but how many. And if this is the year for him to finally get hold of that eluding Calendar Slam.
So is it?
Let's take a look at the prospects.
The French Open
This one is, whether the Federer fans like it or not, largely dependent on how well Nadal is feeling going into the French. An injury-free, confident Nadal will invariably be the favorite at
Roland Garros, Federer or no Federer.
We did see signs of Nadal being close to his old self in Doha and Australia before he withdrew with knew pain in the knees from the Murray beating. Problem for Nadal is, regardless of how well he plays in the months leading up to Roland Garros, his air of invincibility is no longer
Nadal knows that, Federer knows that and the hard-hitting contenders know that. A healthy Nadal will still be the favorite, but he will no longer be crowned before the games begin.
Federer, having made the last four finals and now also having tasted the sweet, sweet victory in Paris, is the clear second and should have a fair chance against a less than 100 percent Nadal. His win in Madrid, his win and Söderlings win here last year plus his regained confidence may even give him enough belief to challenge a completely healthy Nadal—coming around his backhand more often, attacking Nadal's second serve, using his slice and his drop shot.
Federer might not be the favorite, but I fancy his chances are as good as ever. The two second most likely winners are Djokovic and Del Potro. The Djoker has been the third best clay-courter for years, but seems to lack the belief to win a Slam these days and getting into the bad habit of loosing the biggest matches.
Del Potro may grow to become a monster. Whereas Federer has continuously managed to keep Djokovic (yes, he lost that semi after his mono) and Murray at bay, not allowing them to think of themselves champions, he failed to dictate Del Potro.
Last years semis were extremely close between them and if Del Potro's wrist allows him to, he will be the most dangerous challenger to the duopoly. A few outsiders can also make run for the title, but Federer's chances of prevailing are not that slim.
Regardless of the 2008 final and Nadal's continued improvement on grass, this tournament remains Federer's to lose. Aside from a healthy, confident Nadal, only Murray and an outstanding playing Roddick has a legitimate chance for the title. Outsiders could be
Cilic and Del Potro, but I doubt they are ready for the grass. If Federer has already won the French, the pressure will be higher, but doesn't he almost seem to like that?
Both Murray and Roddick has yet to prove that they can take him out in a Slam final (or a semi or a quarter for that matter) and whereas Roddick came as close as anyone, will that Wimbledon defeat, while playing perfect tennis, not rather give him doubts than confidence?
As to Murray, he got outright beaten despite displaying the finest tennis throughout the tournament. He learned once again that meeting Federer outside a Slam is an entirely different experience than within. That leaves Nadal, who is certainly a legitimate contender if
his body holds up to it. But does it? We don't know yet.
Odds are on Federer.
Assuming Federer now has three in the bag, let's move on to the final Slam of the year.
The media, the fans, the pundits would have gone crazy for months on end. Few, if any, would still doubt his GOAT status and a win here would convince the last sceptics around. It would add that last cherry to an already mind-boggling resume. The pressure would be enormous, yet Federer might be one of the few people around, who can handle and
strive on it.
That said, the Flushing Meadows is the Slam with the most contenders of the remaining three. Given Federer's records here, his Slam records, his semifinal- and final-streak and, we imagine, the confidence of having won the other three Slams, he would be the favorite heading into the tournament.
There are so many players, who have a perfect game for the Flushing Meadows. Del Potro, Murray, a matured Cilic, Djokovic, Tsonga, Roddick, Davydenko, Söderling plus outsiders. But again, Del Potro aside, no one in this group has proven that they can handle Federer in a Slam, not least a Federer biding for the ultimate glory.
Obviously, they do stand a chance, but it is just a lot easier to beat Federer in a Slam,
when you already know you can. Tennis is a confidence game, especially in the biggest moments.
That brings us to Nadal.
Though Nadal's game is far from perfect for the fast Flushing Meadows, one should never underestimate him and count him out beforehand. After all, in this scenario he would have the chance of getting a career Grand Slam and at the same time preventing his fiercest rival from getting his Calendar Slam.
Though I doubt that there is anything but respect between these two great players, I also doubt that this scenario wouldn't get Nadal extra motivated to win it and spoil the coronation.
Let's wait and see what happens. The chance for the Calendar Slam is there, though admittedly very slim in one of the toughest top 10 and top 20 in recent years. But one year can certainly change the prospects.
As can one tournament.
Not too long ago, many predicted that this year would have four different slams winners. That may still happen. But one man may also end up with all of them.