French clock ticking for Federer

Pete Sampras tried 13 times to win a French Open and 13 times he failed.

Roger Federer, who is surely destined to surpass the American’s 14 Grand Slam titles, is about to embark on his 10th attempt to solve the intricate mysteries of the Roland Garros clay.

However, it’s the world number one’s misfortune that his campaign to go one better than Sampras has consistently run into the Spanish brick wall that is Rafael Nadal, the triple champion.

Federer has lost the last two finals to the 21-year-old.

The 12-time Grand Slam title winner, is also enduring, by his lofty standards, a poor season, having lost his Australian Open title, suffered glandular fever and been beaten by Nadal in the finals in Monte Carlo and Hamburg.

“Many people say that this year is the beginning of the end. What do you think?,” asked a reporter when Federer was knocked out of the Rome Masters in the quarterfinals by Radek Stepanek, a man best known for being Martina Hingis’s ex-fiancé.

“Next question, please,” fired back Federer.

But the questions are piling up.

The 26-year-old’s loss in Hamburg took him to a 1-8 record against Nadal on clay, while in both the Monte Carlo and Hamburg finals he surrendered healthy leads.

If that wasn’t worrying enough, there is the growing threat posed to both men by Novak Djokovic, the world number three and the best player in the world in 2008.

The Serbian, who took Federer’s Australian Open title and showed his ability on clay with the Rome trophy, only turned 21 on Thursday.

“Federer has just two or three years to realise his dream,” said Sampras, when asked if the Swiss will ever win Roland Garros.

“He has the game to do it, but things need to fall into place for him.

“Once he hits 29 or 30 the Djokovics and Nadals will be in their prime and it’ll become a little tougher,” added Sampras, whose best showing at Rolland Garros in 13 attempts was the semifinals in 1996.

Federer, who has six clay-court titles in his 54-trophy collection, is nothing if not positive.

“I’m pushing Rafa and I have the feeling I can beat him if I play the right way,” he said.

“I feel like my defensive skills are getting better and better. To compare to other years, I always feel like I’m bringing more into my clay-court game over the years, even though it was good before.
I just think I’m a more clever clay-court player today.”

Twelve months ago, Federer had Tony Roche in his corner as coach; twelve months on, he has turned to Jose Higueras, the grizzled Spanish clay-court specialist who guided Jim Courier and Michael Chang to victory here.

Both Americans believe it’s a smart decision.

“Jose understands the mind of a champion, knows how to deliver information tactfully and knows how to prepare a player as well as anyone you’ll find,” said Courier, the winner in 1991 and 1992.

Chang, who was just 17 years and three months old when he was champion in 1989, also thinks Higueras can be a key figure.

“Jose’s knowledge of the surface and Spanish tennis can bring a new understanding of clay-court tennis to Roger’s game,” said Chang.—Sapa-AFP

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