At 24, Federer already halfway to Sampras

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Can you hear the footsteps, Pete?

An emotional Roger Federer took another step toward solidifying his place in tennis history Sunday night as he won his seventh major title, and third consecutive, 5-7, 7-5, 6-0, 6-2, over unseeded Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis in the Australian Open final.

At just 24, Federer's seven majors (3 Wimbledons, 2 U.S. Opens and 2 Australian Opens) have come in a span of 11 Grand Slams dating to his initial Wimbledon triumph in 2003, a singular achievement that admits him to a very exclusive club of sportsmen.

The best comparisons, arguably, are to Lance Armstrong (seven consecutive Tour de France wins) and Tiger Woods (winner of seven of 11 majors between the 1999 PGA Championship and the 2002 U.S. Open).

Federer is now halfway toward equaling Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles, equaling the career output of both John McEnroe and Mats Wilander. He's also blown right past a pair of players he admired growing up.

"I left my idols behind me now," Federer said. "That means something, you know. I'm very pleased. But they still stay my heroes from back in the day, (Boris) Becker and (Stefan) Edberg.

"I'm definitely on a great roll at the moment. I don't forget that it's been a tough road for me. I amaze myself every time I do well. It's been so consistent, too, winning so many Slams, seven out of the last 11, I think. It's quite incredible."

The world No. 1 scrambled on-court for the first two sets and then struggled mightily afterward to verbalize what the victory meant to him as he accepted the winner's trophy from Rod Laver, for whom the arena here in Melbourne is named.

"What can I say?" the champion began. "I don't know what to say," he continued before starting to weep. "I guess it's all coming out now.
I've had some hard speeches before but … "

He was more composed when he met the media two hours after the match, answering questions in three languages with the same dexterity with which he wields his racquet between the lines.

"It was hard, you know. I really had to battle," he said. "I was physically a little tired after a tough couple of matches there. So it was a different type of Grand Slam victory, and I think that's why it was so emotional in the end for me."

With a win tonight, Cyprus' Baghdatis would have become the first player since Wilander at the 1982 French Open to beat four top-10 players in succession at a Grand Slam. He had toppled No. 2 Andy Roddick, No. 7 Ivan Ljubicic and No. 4 David Nalbandian in succession en route to his first major final. But Federer proved too difficult an obstacle.

"I really played well the first two sets. I had my chances," said Baghdatis. "I just start thinking, got a bit stressed out, stopped playing my game, and gave the chance to Roger to come in and play his game. That cost me the match, I think."

Federer won 11 consecutive games from five-all in the second set. By the time the Cypriot knew what had hit him, he was down a set and trailing 3-0 in the fourth, and had also begun to experience cramping, limiting his movement.

"I just start cramping on the [left] calf," he added. "I don't know, I just jumped, made a backhand, and a cramp. It came from stress. I had to calm down.
It was too tough. Everything was going so fast. I couldn't do anything."

This may have been the toughest of Federer's seven major wins, as he visibly struggled throughout his seven matches with his shot-making, committing an uncharacteristically high number of unforced errors, and appearing uncomfortable at times on the court.

"Looking back, I maybe never really played my best except the first two sets against Haas [in the 4th round]," Federer said. "From then on, it was a bit of a struggle. I think if I could have closed him out earlier, the whole tournament would have been much more of a great run."

Making the victory even sweeter was the fact that the family of Federer's first professional coach, Australian Peter Carter, who died in a road accident in South Africa in 2002, was on hand to see his win.

"It's very nice to share the moment with them, you know," said Federer. "I think it means a lot to them, too. They could just walk away from the game and say, 'Look, we'd rather not face it anymore,' because of how much he loved the sport. It's always very emotional winning here because of Peter and Tony [current coach Tony Roche]."

While Federer is clearly a sentimental man, there's no trace of it in his game. He has an uncanny ability to block out distractions and mercilessly hone in on the weaknesses of his opponent.

Next up: Roland Garros in late May, where he'll attempt to conjure up the tennis equivalent of the Tiger Slam, winning four consecutive majors spanning two calendar years. It would take a brave soul, at low-yielding odds, to bet against him.

Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering the Australian Open for ESPN.com. He can be E-mailed at lobsandvolleys@yahoo.com.