"It's unfortunately, or fortunately, like that", stated Federer after his loss to Rafael Nadal at the Madrid Open Masters event, when pointing out the lack of importance of the major tournaments leading up to Roland Garros, in comparison with that Parisian Slam: "If we win all the tournaments like Rafa, and then go out in the first round of the French, everything will be questioned." He described his exit at the hands of Nadal as "irrelevant".
When has "Rafa" lost in the "first round" of any clay event? If he does lose early in Paris, for whatever reason, then should his phenomenal accomplishment of being the only player to achieve the clay Masters sweep be questioned? I think not!
These comments by Federer came after being one win away from securing the no.1 spot on June 7th, the day after the clay Slam, and tying Pete Sampras' record for consecutive weeks at the top of the rankings, regardless of his performance in the French capital.
They came after missing a golden opportunity to further narrow the head-to-head gap with Nadal, on a faster clay surface that should play into the hands of the Swiss.
They came after Federer missed his chance to secure his first Masters series event of the season after a dry spell stemming back to the Australian Open, and against the King of Clay on the latter's favourite surface to boot.
Was this an irrelevant loss? Certainly not. What is relevant, though, is the bitterness. It rings through Federer's words like a Rafa Nadal grunt in a packed, windless Grand Slam stadium; bitterness at being pegged down another notch in his rivalry with the Spaniard.
Last year, his victory over Nadal in the final of the same event in Madrid came after a similar dry spell, oh, but this time his accomplishment was very relevant, Federer saying that it was a win he "needed badly".
Federer has used the word, "irrelevant", in the past, to describe his loss to Novak Djokovic at the Rogers Cup Masters 1000 in Montreal in 2007. Even if Federer had lost in a lowly 250-level ATP event, such a word is demeaning to the victor's achievement. It is a word best saved for when one is contemplating which tennis shoe to put on first before a match.
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