Federer's date with destiny doomed?

PARIS -- So it's a foregone conclusion that Roger Federer ties Pete Sampras' all-time Grand Slam mark, achieves the elusive French Open title and silences the critics, right? After all, his worst nightmare, the irrepressible Rafael Nadal, is not standing on the other side of the net.

It's a magical opportunity, one that would exalt the venerable Swiss to the very pinnacle of tennis immortality, and perhaps, just perhaps, quash the greatest-player-of-all-time debate.

But slow down, Federer hounds. Along with these historic achievements comes a whole lot of pressure -- and that, as Federer has shown in the past year, is nothing short of a burden. And take this into consideration:

His Sunday assailant, Robin Soderling, is no pushover. This is the same person who flummoxed Nadal and came back from the brink of defeat to take down Fernando Gonzalez in the semifinals, and he has nothing to lose.

The prospect of Soderling's winning a maiden Slam title might appear bleak to the collective tennis lore, but he will have no reluctance as he tries to take down another one of the sport's giants.

Will Federer finally conquer the one Slam he so deeply yearns for, or will Sunday morph into an upset special? Bonnie D. Ford and Greg Garber debate.

Andre Agassi, the 1999 champion here at Roland Garros, said it best Saturday.

"I think Roger being the second-best clay-courter over the last five years," Agassi said, "making the finals three different times, deserves this more than I did.

"In some ways, it almost feels like destiny for him."

Destiny -- it's a powerful force. One that Robin Soderling cannot possibly counteract. Like Agassi, Federer is looking to complete the circle, to add the French Open to his other Grand Slam titles.

He will do it, Bonnie, make no mistake.

Federer is 111-0 versus players outside the top five since his run to 20 straight Grand Slam semifinals began.

This is the first time Federer has recorded only two straight-sets wins in reaching a Grand Slam final. It is also the first time Federer has been forced to play two five-set matches to reach a Grand Slam final; the only previous time he played two five-setters in a major was this year's Australian Open. That ended badly for the Swiss champion, but the winner that day, Rafael Nadal, is back home in Mallorca, resting up for Wimbledon.

Listen to Federer after he scraped past Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals:

"It feels great coming through tough matches like this, you know. It's more emotional. It's more satisfaction, even though I love matches when I can really dominate an opponent.

"But this is also a great feeling of coming through this way, not the easy way, showing different qualities. It's not always something I've actually had a chance to show, because matches were over too quickly sometimes. It's good for me, so my career hopefully is going to be longer because of those matches, in the long run."

Long story short? Federer has won each of his nine matches against Soderling, taking 19 of 20 sets. With so much at stake, he will make it 10-for-10.

Prediction: Federer in four sets.

-- Greg Garber


Has any Grand Slam finalist in recent memory walked out on a stadium court with less pressure draped on his coat-hanger shoulders than this enigmatic Swede? It's actually possible to believe the 24-year-old Soderling when he says he's trying to treat Sunday's match like any other. "He's a unique enough guy to be able to ignore the moment and keep swinging from the hips the way he's done this whole tournament,'' said retired two-time Grand Slam finalist Todd Martin, who has observed the proceedings with interest from afar.

Martin wasn't saying Soderling is the favorite. Few would. And it's likely that his only crowd support will come from the handful of intimates who will be seated in his box on what is predicted to be an unseasonably damp, chilly afternoon. That doesn't faze Soderling either. "Normally I like to play in slower conditions,'' he said Saturday. "I think actually I played my best clay-court matches when it's been a little bit colder and a little bit rainy. Hopefully it will be good for me.''

Watching the low-key, high-powered Soderling operate here has been like watching the completion of a long-abandoned construction project. A well-proportioned building now stands where we once saw exposed structural beams and hanging wires. Everyone agrees that the architect of this change has been Soderling's coach, 2000 French Open finalist Magnus Norman.

"He's much more relaxed on the court,'' said former Swedish great Anders Jarryd, who has known Soderling since he was a teenager. "He doesn't get down on himself.'' Does that explain Soderling's remarkable comeback from 4-1 down in the fifth set of his semifinal against a rampaging Fernando Gonzalez? "If that would have happened one year ago, he never would have won this match,'' Jarryd said.

Swedish Davis Cup captain Mats Wilander said Norman helped Soderling "realize it's better to try than not to try, and better to not show your opponent you're pissed off than to show him you're pissed off. 'Why give it away when I've worked so hard? Why give it away by bad body language?' I think it's just a decision.''

The hard-hitting Soderling will have hundreds of tactical and personal choices to make in the course of Sunday's match. If the points are quick and his temper is not, he's got a great shot against a great player who is not playing his best tennis right now.

Prediction: Soderling in four.

-- Bonnie D. Ford