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Monday, June 1, 2009
Federer loosens up, tightens forehand

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

PARIS -- His forehand has always been the window to Roger Federer's sense of well-being.

When he was the world's best player, it was a decisive stroke, the signature instrument with which he carved up the competition. For the past year or so, under pressure, his forehand has been a squirrely, nervous affair.

On Monday, the day after Rafael Nadal was ushered from the French Open by Robin Soderling, the Swiss champion's forehand was looser than a bag of writhing eels.

With Nadal and Novak Djokovic gone from the draw, Federer -- who has never won at Roland Garros and aches to complete his Grand Slam collection -- suddenly was the favorite. Could he have imagined this opportunity to match Pete Sampras' record of 14 majors at the very venue at which Sampras was unable to triumph?

When he went down two sets to love to Tommy Haas, Federer clearly was feeling the pressure. How much pressure? Perhaps more than we will ever know.

But after he erased that deficit and came all the way back for the fifth time in his career, after Haas sent his last serve wide, Federer instinctively moved toward the ball, then vaulted into a semi-scissors kick and blasted one last forehand -- a very solid forehand, it should be noted.

Thus did Federer escape -- the score was 6-7 (4), 5-7, 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 -- and secure a berth in the quarterfinals. The vehemence of that celebration revealed more than his postmatch news conference. Rafa?

"He didn't retire, right?" Federer said, drawing a big laugh. "Of course, my dream scenario is to beat Rafa here in the finals, but I've got to concentrate on my part of the draw and make sure I come through like today."

How much is this opportunity actually a burden?

"Well, I mean, I'm used to any kind of a situation, so it doesn't affect me in a big way," Federer said. "Sure, you're aware of it. You try and stay in the draw, but, you know, at the end of the day, you're focusing on your shots and your match and on how you play and the game plan against that player.

"Not a whole lot more. I think if you make it to the finals, then it's a different scenario. But we're not there yet, so honestly, it hasn't changed a whole lot for me."

As hard as it is to believe, Nadal's departure guarantees a first-time French Open champion will be crowned. If you are choosing from a list of candidates that includes Federer, Andy Murray, Andy Roddick, Fernando Gonzalez and Nikolay Davydenko, why wouldn't you choose the 13-time Grand Slam champion?

If Soderling could beat the four-time defending champion, if Philipp Kohlschreiber could beat Djokovic, well, certainly Federer could beat a 31-year-old who has never been much of a factor in Grand Slams. Right?

Haas, whose undeniable talents have been compromised by injuries over the years, came out serving exceptionally well and pushed Federer into a first-set tiebreaker. Federer's forehand was a mess, and one last, weak effort into the net gave Haas the upper hand.

Federer was serving to reach a second breaker when his forehand quailed again. Two high balls to the forehand, the kind Nadal loves to send his way, jumped up and bit him; the second, which wound up in the net, dropped him down, deep into a two-set hole.

Predictably, Haas -- most notably, his serve -- tightened, and Federer came back. The match's critical moment came with Federer trailing the third set 3-4 and serving at 30-40. The shot that had failed him miserably earlier then saved him. He hit a pure-as-light forehand just inside the line and drew even.

"You win that point, you're serving for the match," Haas said later. "I thought I played a decent return. I didn't really want to go for it too much, but I wanted to keep it deep and cross court. He ran around it and played a really precise, nice forehand inside out that almost touched the line for a winner. Haas was in position to make a forehand volley and erase a break point at 4-all in the third, but the shot was long. Federer found the range on his forehand, and quite swiftly, the match was level.

In the critical fifth game of the final set, Haas made three errors (forehand, backhand, forehand), and it was obvious Federer would advance.

"There's no secret to why he's been there where he has been the last five years and what he has accomplished," Haas said. "You've just got to tip your hat and say, 'That's why he's Roger Federer.'"

Tommy Haas
Tommy Haas was the lone remaining unseeded player in the draw before his loss to Federer.

Since winning the 2008 U.S. Open, Federer has not embraced the big moments. Rather, he seems to have shrunk from them.

There was the final at the Australian Open, in which he offered little resistance in the fifth set to Nadal. Then the symmetrical semifinal losses at Indian Wells and Miami, to Murray and Djokovic, respectively, that signaled he was no longer the consensus No. 2 player in the world. Even his greatest triumph, over Nadal in the final at Madrid, came with an asterisk -- Nadal was exhausted from his four-hour match with Djokovic the day before.

Faced with adversity at Roland Garros, Federer stepped up. For all of his overly amplified faults, he now has reached 20 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals. With a win Wednesday, he can make it 20 semifinals.

And he has his forehand to thank, a shot he can still see in his mind.

"I knew I was going to look back on that [third-set] shot," Federer said. "That saved me on that day. That's exactly what happened, and I was able to turn around the whole match.

"It's a great feeling, because I was in quite some danger right there."

At his news conference, Haas was asked who he thought was the greatest of all time.

"You can go look at it right now -- who has the most Slam titles?" he said. "Pete [Sampras] is still up there. Roger would have to win a few more to pass him. I think if he does, then in my eyes he deserves rightfully to be considered the greatest ever.

"I have to think about it more. But if he wins here, you know, he's probably the greatest ever."

Now, that's pressure.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Bonnie D. Ford contributed to this story.