With his first French Open title, Roger Federer strengthened the argument he’s the best tennis player ever.
He completed a career Grand Slam, something only five other men have done. He won his 14th major title to equal the record held by Pete Sampras. He played in his 19th Grand Slam final to match Ivan Lendl’s record.
The stylish Swiss caught a break in Paris and made the most of it, winning the title by beating the man who beat Federer’s nemesis, Rafael Nadal. Federer swept surprise finalist Robin Soderling 6-1, 7-6 (1), 6-4 on Sunday.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever know who was the greatest of all time, but I’m definitely happy to be right up there,” said the 27-year-old Federer, who plans to play into his 30s. “I think it should be judged at the very end, you know. How well did I do? Good? Great? Very good? Or medium? I don’t know. It’s for other people to decide.”
On his fourth try in a French Open final, and first against someone other than Nadal, Federer came through. The list of Grand Slam champions who never won at Roland Garros includes Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Sampras.
“I’m obviously happy for Roger,” Sampras told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he lives. “Now that he has won in Paris, I think it just more solidifies his place in history as the greatest player that played the game, in my opinion.”
But is Federer who acknowledged relief at avoiding Nadal in the final even the best player of his generation?
With the career Slam complete, the biggest blemish on Federer’s resume is a poor record versus Nadal. Federer is 7-13 against the Spaniard and has lost the past three times they’ve met in Grand Slam finals.
Soderling, a Swede seeded 23rd, eased Federer’s title path at Roland Garros by upsetting four-time defending champion Nadal in the fourth round.
“I knew the day Rafa won’t be in the finals, I will be there and I will win,” Federer said. “I always knew that, and I believed in it. That’s exactly what happened.”
Andre Agassi, the most recent man to complete the career Grand Slam when he won at Roland Garros 10 years ago, presented Federer with the trophy. The other men to win all four major titles were Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Don Budge and Fred Perry.
This title came after Federer lost to Nadal at the French Open and Wimbledon last year, and at the Australian Open in February. Federer also lost the No. 1 ranking to Nadal last August.
“Sounds like an Achilles’ heel, but at the same time, what (Federer) has done is unmatched,” Agassi said.
“We’re watching two guys in the prime of their years compete against each other and Nadal has an answer for him. But what criteria do you use to judge best ever? Roger’s numbers it’s hard to disagree with. His domination on different surfaces hard to disagree with.”
Federer was in top form Sunday, gliding across the court and whacking winners from all angles as he raced to a quick lead. Then came the day’s biggest surprise: Midway through the match, a spectator ran onto the court and tried to put a hat on Federer.
That only briefly delayed Federer’s march to the title. Soderling’s strokes steadied, but Federer played a brilliant tiebreaker, hitting aces on all four serves.
“One of greatest tiebreakers in my career,” Federer said.
He broke again to start the third set and kept that lead the rest of the way, although it wasn’t as easy as he made it look.
“It was very hard mentally for me to stay within the match during the match, because my mind was always wondering, ‘What if?”’ Federer said. “‘What if I win this tournament? What does that mean? What will I possibly say?’
“I was very nervous at the beginning of the third set because I realized how close I was. The last game, obviously you can imagine how difficult that game was. It was almost unplayable for me.”
Still, Federer managed to hold in the final game. When he hit a service winner on championship point, he fell to his knees to the clay, and he was teary by the time he met Soderling at the net.
Debates about the greatest player ever usually include Laver, who swept the Grand Slams in 1962 and 1969. Sampras is another contender, even though he never reached the French Open final.
Soderling’s vote: Federer.
“I never played anyone playing that fast,” said Soderling, who is 0-10 against Federer. “He doesn’t have any weaknesses at all. He really deserves to be called the best player of all time.”
With 14 major titles, Federer is tied for the lead on the list that may matter most.
In Sampras’ final match, he beat Agassi for the 2002 US Open title in his 52nd career Grand Slam tournament. Federer has played 40 Grand Slam tournaments.
“It looks pretty tough to beat now with 14 majors,” Sampras said, “and I’m sure he’s going to go on and win a lot more.”
Nadal remains an obstacle, however. He’ll be waiting in two weeks at Wimbledon, where he ended Federer’s five-year reign a year ago.