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Sunday, June 25, 2006
Federer focuses on history

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- Andre Agassi, the 1992 champion here, traded low, skidding forehands Sunday with Olympic doubles gold medalist Nicolas Massu of Chile on a pitch-perfect day at Aorangi Park. A dozen television cameras and a massive media contingent recorded the informal session -- the beginning of the announced end for the 36-year-old Agassi in his Wimbledon finale.

Roger Federer
Roger Federer is attempting to become the seventh player in Wimbledon history to win the men's title four consecutive years.

The wealth of tennis talent concentrated on the practice courts at the All England Club was, frankly, amazing. One court over, No. 5 seed and French Open semifinalist Ivan Ljubicic grooved his serve. Behind him, reigning French Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne worked on the timing of her classic backhand under the eye of Carlos Rodriguez, her coach of more than 10 years now. James Blake, the No. 8 seed and viable threat to go deep in this event, was on the next court and Rafael Nadal, fresh from his triumph at Roland Garros and No. 2 seed, was another court over, practicing approach shots against the spidery Feliciano Lopez.

And while Agassi is the sentimental story of this fortnight, he is not likely to be the last man standing. That player is expected to be Roger Federer. While his peers honed their games on grass, the No. 1-ranked player in the world answered a volley of questions in Interview Room No. 1.

Federer appeared relaxed, almost languid, but there is enormous pressure on him. The 24-year-old Swiss player is the three-time defending champion and is bidding to become only the third man in 93 years to win four straight titles. That the other two are named Borg and Sampras only makes the potential feat more tantalizing. And then there is the 41-match grass court winning streak that Federer currently shares with Borg.

With a win in the first round over Richard Gasquet of France, Federer would own the exclusive rights to the record. When Rafael Nadal won his 54th consecutive match on clay in the first round at Roland Garros -- breaking the record of Guillermo Vilas -- the French Tennis Federation made a great ceremony of presenting him with a trophy before an adoring crowd.

Federer was not among those applauding at Court Philippe Chatrier.

"[I] don't feel that's right," Federer said on Sunday. "You get a trophy at the end of the tournament, not after a first-round win. Honestly, that is not the right thing to get a trophy for streaks.

"I know this will never happen here in Wimbledon. I'm not even expecting it. I wouldn't want it, either."

What would the streak mean to Federer?

"I mean, it's sort of nice," he allowed. "That's about it."

This is pure Federer -- simple, honest and understated. He has bigger things in mind. Certainly, history and the pressure are working against him, but the most formidable obstacle is the path before him. For Federer, anyway, there was no luck in this draw.

Men's Grass-Court Win Streaks*
48 Roger Federer Halle 2003
-current
41 Bjorn Borg Wimbledon 1976
-Wimbledon 1981
23 John McEnroe Brisbane 1980
-Queen's 1982
23 Pete Sampras Wimbledon 1994
-Wimbledon 1996
23 Pete Sampras Wimbledon 1998
-Queen's 2000
22 Jimmy Connors Queen's 1982
-Wimbledon 1983
* Open era (1968-present)

"It's one of the toughest draws I've had in a long time," Federer said. "As a No. 1 seed and a seed in general. But to win the tournament, you've got to beat everybody, so that's obviously my aim. But it's not an easy draw, that's for sure."

The first opponent, Gasquet, could not be more imposing. The 20-year-old Frenchman is coming off a victory in Nottingham on Saturday and a week earlier lost 6-4 in the third set to Federer in Halle. It was only last year that Gasquet unstrung Federer on clay at Monte Carlo.

The probable second-round opponent: Tim Henman, aflame with the hopes of the British Empire. Tommy Haas, the dangerous No. 19 seed, could await him in the fourth round. Both Gasquet and Henman are unseeded, but historically difficult outs on grass.

"Gasquet should be higher ranked," Federer said. "Tim should be higher ranked. It's a very tough little section there. I've definitely got to play well from the start. I would like to think of Henman's match. But Gasquet, he just won a tournament on grass. I just played him in Halle, almost lost.

"Better be careful."

Federer knows of what he speaks. In three of his first four Wimbledons, Federer went out in the first round. He reached the quarterfinals in 2001, dethroning Sampras to get there, then lost to teenager Mario Ancic -- in his Grand Slam debut -- in the first round a year later.

Since then, of course, Federer has won all 21 of his matches at the All England Club.

"That [Ancic] match really hurt," Federer said. "I underestimated him. He played very well. But the other ones were no problems. Obviously, I had so much success here, when I come to Wimbledon, I don't think of the first-round losses, I think of the wins."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.