Federer holds back nothing but the tears
Published: Monday, January 29, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 29, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.
MELBOURNE, Australia — At least there is history for Roger Federer to play against, because for the moment, no man is much of a match.
Fernando Gonzalez gave it all he had, or at least all he had left, in Sunday's final at the Australian Open. With his forehand working and Federer's slightly off target, he even managed to serve for the opening set.
But despite all of Gonzalez's emotion, the coolest head in tennis once again ruled the evening as Federer successfully defended his title in Melbourne and won his 10th Grand Slam singles title, 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-4.
Federer has won 36 consecutive matches overall, and six of the past seven major titles. No other active player has won more than three. Federer is tied for fifth on the career list with Bill Tilden, who won his between 1920 and 1930. Pete Sampras is atop the list with 14.
Federer, still only 25, is moving rapidly into range, and Sampras has already said that he is convinced that Federer will pass him, perhaps sooner rather than later.
Tiger Woods is not yet convinced he will lose his race with Federer. Woods, who met Federer at last year's U.S. Open, has befriended him. According to Federer, Woods often teases him that he is going to break Jack Nicklaus' career record of 18 Grand Slam golf victories before Federer breaks Sampras' record. Woods is six victories from his target, Federer is four from his.
"He loves it; he likes to beat me up," said Federer, who spoke with Woods while he was in Australia. "He says he's going to break it first. I hope just to get close to it. He is more, I think, driven than me. I'm maybe more laid-back in terms of looking at all these records and matches, but he really is so driven by the majors and by beating Nicklaus' record."
He added: "But I always hope well for Tiger, and not that I'm going to break the record the first. I hope he breaks it as well. I hope we both do."
If Federer's opponents had hoped that all his success in the past three seasons would leave him feeling sated, his performance here, in the year's first Grand Slam event, was an unmistakable signal that he remains eager and excellent.
For the first time in his groundbreaking career, Federer swept through a Grand Slam tournament without dropping a set, and the only set points he faced were the two he saved in the first set on Sunday against Gonzalez, of Chile.
It was a terrific set, full of bold shotmaking and lunging defense, with Gonzalez's blocs of fans inside and outside Rod Laver Arena providing plenty of positive reinforcement with their chants of "Chi-Chi-Chi, Le-Le-Le, Chile! Chile!"
Until this tournament, Gonzalez had never advanced past the quarterfinals in a Grand Slam event. But with an improved backhand and improved tactics and confidence, thanks to his new coach, Larry Stefanki, he had broken through by beating four members of the top 20.
Against Tommy Haas in the semifinals, he finished with a stunning 42 winners and only three unforced errors. A Grand Slam final, however, particularly against Federer, is a more unnerving proposition. There is the protocol: the photographs at the net beforehand, the aura of gravitas that seeps into the expressions of the officials.
It takes time to adjust, and the 10th-seeded Gonzalez, who will rise to No. 5 in the world after his run here, did a much better job than most debutantes. But he could not maintain the same level of play against Federer.
"I wasn't as good as in my other matches, but the guy on the other side of the net also applies more pressure than the guys in my other matches," Gonzalez said.
After only eight points, Gonzalez already had more unforced errors than in the entire match against Haas. But Federer was also not nearly as sharp early as he had been in his semifinal demolition of Andy Roddick.
His signature shot is the midcourt forehand, which he can take either direction into the corners, but he failed to convert on several such shots in the early stages of the match. And in the ninth game, Gonzalez put together two great backhand passing shots in a row to break Federer's serve and earn the chance to serve for the set at 5-4.
At 40-15, after Federer hit a backhand return wide, it looked as if Gonzalez might transform this final into something more compelling than the latest Federer coronation. But on the first set point, Federer pushed forward to the net, and Gonzalez hit a hasty forehand passing shot directly at him, which Federer volleyed away for a winner. On the second set point, Gonzalez kicked a first serve to the backhand and was greeted with a deep return. He responded with an edgy forehand unforced error.
It was deuce, and Federer would soon be back to 5-5. Though Gonzalez saved four set points on his serve in the 12th game, he could not dig his teeth into the tie breaker, falling behind, 0-5, then seeking treatment for a sore right shoulder after losing the set.
The rest was less suspenseful, as is so often the case with one of the best players and front-runners in history.
"The first set was the set Fernando had to win to have any effect on Roger's psyche, to have any effect on his nervous system," Stefanki said.
Federer did indeed look much more at ease after that, controlling his own serve with little difficulty and cutting his unforced errors in half. He claimed the match and his third Australian Open title by holding his serve at love, shouting with delight, then rolling onto his back on the green hardcourt.
The last man to win here without dropping a set was Ken Rosewall in 1971, and Rosewall was in the President's Box on Sunday.
"I'm happy to be the guy who follows up on you; it's a great honor," Federer said in his postmatch remarks as he gestured toward Rosewall.
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It was a telling moment, because Federer, at this stage, has much more in common with the game's former luminaries than his current rivals. He is now, for example, 10-0 against Gonzalez.
Federer's only loss in the past seven Grand Slam events came at the French Open last year, when Rafael Nadal deprived him of a shot at the Grand Slam by beating him in the final. But after this performance, the drumroll will start again as the clay-court season and Roland Garros approach.
"Well, I think last year was really the first year I thought if everything goes perfectly well, there might be a chance," Federer said of the Grand Slam. "And I got so awfully close looking back, but the French Open is the second one. It's such a tough one to win. I've given myself chances the last two years, but Rafa has been so dominant on that surface."
That is true, but Federer has been dominant on everything else, and he has already shown that he is a quick learner and, above all, a great closer.
MELBOURNE, Australia — Roger Federer held back the tears this time. He didn't hold back much else at the Australian Open.
Federer underlined his 10th Grand Slam singles title by winning 21 straight sets, saving a set point in Sunday's final before finishing off Fernando Gonzalez 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-4.
The last man to go through a major without dropping a set was Bjorn Borg at the 1980 French Open. The only other man to win the Australian Open without dropping a set was Ken Rosewall in 1971, although he had to play only five matches.
"Equaling records, doing something that hasn't been done for a long time, it's really nice, no doubt," Federer said. "All I care about in the end is to hopefully hold that trophy. Of course, now that it's over, it's great to think, 'Wow, you know, not having dropped a set.' It's quite amazing."
Rosewall was in the crowd Sunday night, and Federer gave him a nod in a composed victory speech. It was the mere presence of another Australian great, Rod Laver, that reduced Federer to tears the previous year at the trophy presentation.
"I can't force them out every year!" Federer said of his sobbing celebration in 2006, when he accepted the trophy from Laver. "I had a wonderful tournament. A great end. Just because there were no tears doesn't mean it doesn't mean anything to me."
Laver, the last man to win the Grand Slam — all four majors in one season — made the trip from California to see Federer dismantle Andy Roddick 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 in the semifinals.
He met with Federer in the locker room after the semifinal and said he had little doubt the 25-year-old Swiss star could beat Pete Sampras' record 14 Grand Slam singles titles, and just about every other tennis record as well.
"The best way to beat him would be to hit him over the head with a racket," Laver joked in a newspaper column.
Federer improved his streak to a career-best 36 wins, became the first man in the Open era to twice win three straight majors and has collected six of the last seven Grand Slam titles.
He tied Jack Crawford's 73-year-old record by reaching his seventh consecutive final in majors.
"If somebody would have told me I'd win 10 Grand Slams from mid '03 till today, I never would have thought there was any chance," he said.
Even before the tournament he had enough points to ensure he will break Jimmy Connors' record of 160 consecutive weeks atop the men's rankings by the end of next month.
Although he knows he's only one-quarter of the way there in 2007, a season Grand Slam is his objective. He was two sets from that last year, when he won the first set of the French Open final before losing in four to Rafael Nadal.
That was his only defeat in the last seven majors. Nadal was 26-0 on clay last season and is on a record 62-match streak on the surface.
"French Open is obviously the next big one for me," he said. "I've made one step further every year now. Went from semis to finals. Got closer to Rafa, as well."
That and three other losses to Nadal were about the only downsides of his 2006 season — he was 91-1 against everyone else and picked up 12 titles.
"I think it's going to be a very interesting French Open for me ... hopefully win the title," he said. "That will be a dream come true. That's the only way I can make this season a better one than last year. Otherwise it won't be possible."
Federer saw Gonzalez coming. The Chilean beat former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt and Masters Cup finalist James Blake before pounding Nadal in straight in the quarterfinals.
"I knew he was a dangerous player, and the way he's been going through the draw made me wonder what did he do different this time around," Federer said. "Especially the win against Nadal — it kind of shocked me. ... I didn't believe he was going to beat Rafa so easy."
Then Gonzalez routed Haas 6-1, 6-3, 6-1.
Federer considered changing strategy against Gonzalez.
"In the end I said, 'You know what, I've beaten him nine times, so just take it easy and play your game, and hopefully it is going to work out,"' Federer said. "It did."
Gonzalez had the most vocal cheering section Sunday, many with painted faces chanting and blowing whistles and twirling flags as if they were at a soccer game.
Federer, as usual, had thousands of backers, too. One fan, dressed in Swiss red and white, carried a sign that summed up the general feeling: "Federer is betterer." In the end, he was.
It was close in the beginning.
Gonzalez broke Federer in the ninth game and had set points at 5-4, but was unable to convert the opportunities. Both players agreed that was the turning point.
"I have to congratulate again Roger," Gonzalez said. "He's on the way to be maybe the best player ever. He is a great champion who played a really good match today, all week — almost all his life. So I can take a lot out of this tournament."
Gonzalez was the biggest mover in the men's top 10, moving five places to No. 5 with his run to his first Grand Slam final.
Serena Williams won her eighth and most improbable Grand Slam title, beating top-seeded Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-2 on Saturday in one of the most lopsided finals at the Australian Open. Sharapova left for Tokyo on Sunday, knowing she would assume the No. 1 ranking the following day.
Williams, who played about half as many matches in two weeks at Melbourne Park as she did in an injury-plagued 2006, stuck around to watch the men's final. She will move from No. 81 to No. 14 and has designs on getting back to No. 1.
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