Federer ready to wrestle Nadal for French crown
Just when tennis fans had started to think that the battle for the men's French Open crown would be a one-horse race, Roger Federer reminded them of his status as the best player in the world.
Since April 2005, no one had been able to trip up claycourt supremo Rafael Nadal on the slow surface.
The muscular Mallorcan had bullied into submission all those before him, including Federer on five occasions, to string together a record 81 wins on clay.
That run had looked set to continue at Roland Garros next week, until Federer finally found the tools and the resolve to snap the streak in the final of the Hamburg Masters on Sunday.
"Before, everyone thought the French Open would be easy for Rafa but now it's going to be very interesting," Sergi Bruguera, twice a champion in Paris in the 1990s, said.
The win -- greeted with an almighty roar from Federer -- not only provided a timely boost to the Swiss master, it also helped him to shake off any fears that had crept into his psyche over the past few weeks.
He had arrived in Germany with his Roland Garros preparations in disarray after going four tournaments without capturing a trophy -- his worst drought since he became world number one in February 2004.
With little warning, it seemed that the precise Swiss timing that usually accompanied Federer's exquisite shots had broken down.
The slump prompted him to abruptly sever his ties with part-time coach Tony Roche, a former French Open champion under whose guidance Federer had won six of his 10 grand slam crowns.
As Roche had been hired specifically to help Federer conquer his shortcomings on red dirt, many questioned the 25-year-old's wisdom in terminating his relationship with the Australian a fortnight before the season's second grand slam.
It took the world number one 10 days to prove he had the talent and the brains to go all the way on his own.
"I got him, which is great for myself...it's absolutely a breakthrough," Federer told reporters after coming from a set down to beat Nadal on Sunday.
"It will be interesting to see how we both react to it in the French Open.
"For me it's just nice to be playing well again. It's not that I was playing so badly but it's my first claycourt title in a couple of years so that's great.
"I'm feeling very good going into the French Open and I'm excited it's coming around now."
Equipped with a brand of tennis which recent history suggests should be a liability on the gruelling clay courts of Roland Garros, the talented Federer can still be expected to quash most rivals.
After adding double French Open champion Nadal to his list of claycourt victims, Federer can concentrate on what he does best -- eyeing his date with destiny.
He aims to become only the third man after American Don Budge and Australian Rod Laver to hold all four major titles at the same time.
"(Winning) the French might put me in another atmosphere in terms of being a legend, because nowadays people want you to win all four otherwise you've not quite done it," said Federer, who has won six of the last seven slams but has yet to triumph at Roland Garros.
Last year he also had a chance of replicating Budge's and Laver's feat but months of careful preparations came to nothing when he was undone by Nadal in the final.
Now, he knows he has the weapons to frustrate the Spaniard.
"Matches against Rafael help me...I've improved a lot by playing against him. The more I play him, the more I'll figure out his game and the easier it's going to get for me," said Federer.
Should Federer succeed he will trail Pete Sampras's all-time record of slam victories by just three. He will also improve his win-loss record to 11-1 in major finals, with his solitary defeat coming to Nadal a year ago.
Such is his stature in the sport that talk of him completing the Grand Slam was again in circulation even before a ball was hit in the 2007 season.
Having kept the dream alive by retaining his Australian Open crown in emphatic fashion in January -- when he became the first man in 27 years to win a grand slam title without dropping a set -- he will want to ensure he does not miss out on his second chance in Paris.