Tuesday June 2nd, 2009

Here comes history now at Roger Federer, the worst kind of opponent. Invisible yet shape-shifting, weighty but untouchable, it has crawled into his mind and will squat there for the rest of the 2009 French Open, and if you take seriously what he said after his five-set escape from Tommy Haas on Monday, then you don't know history or tennis or this champion at all.

It's not that Federer was lying -- not even to himself -- when he said that Sunday's shock elimination of archrival Rafael Nadal from Roland Garros "doesn't affect me in a big way." Even Fedophiles giggled when they heard that. The prospect of chasing the one gap in his Grand Slam resume without facing the one opponent capable of pretzeling his nerve and crushing his will? Please. Mats Wilander predicted beer in the Federer camp that night and, figuratively at least, you can be sure it was a sudsy evening.

But, you see, Federer was talking in English when he first addressed the issue, and that complicates things. His ability to speak four languages isn't just a way to communicate; he once insisted that he actually thinks differently in English than he does in German or Swiss-German or, most significantly of all now, French. And that difference can be telling.

Fed-watchers have long noted that he allows himself to be more open, more expressive in la belle langue than in his far more fluent but clinical English, with Exhibit A being his post-mortem after losing a third straight French final to Nadal in 2008 in a horrific three sets. "C'est un desastre", Federer said after a noticeably detached press conference in English, admitting at last the disaster at hand.

Why he does this is anyone's guess, but maybe it's no coincidence that, when he was at his most emotionally raw, Federer spent his formative junior years at the Swiss tennis center in Ecublens, in the heart of French-speaking Switzerland, a homesick and hot-tempered teen who once cleaned toilets for a week after ripping a tarp with a hurled racket. He later learned how to contain himself on-court, to mask emotions behind an impassive mask, but they pour out in tears after nearly every Grand Slam still. Maybe speaking French accesses that young, temperamental Federer like no other language, and he can't help but reveal more than he'd like.

Because on Monday, too, the 27-year old Federer drew back the curtain, just a bit more, when he began taking questions in French. Asked how his wife, Mirka, or the rest of his support team reacted to Nadal's crashout, Federer verbalized the day's universal conceit, all but admitting the elephant now standing on court with him at Roland Garros. "None of them came to me and said, 'Voila, you have to do it [now]; if not, you will never win.'" Federer said.

So: As much as Federer would like the world to think he's still taking this tournament the clichéd "one match at a time", as much as he needs to concentrate on his quarterfinal clash Wednesday against the dangerous Gael Monfils, the thought is in his head, too. As much as Federer would like us to believe, as he said in English Monday, that Nadal's loss changes his world only "if I were to make the final; but we're not there yet, so honestly it hasn't changed a lot for me", he knows it has changed everything. Another gaining nemesis, Novak Djokovic, had been eliminated by the time he spoke, and then, on Tuesday, Andy Murray -- who had beaten Federer the last four times they'd played -- was cleared out of the draw, 6-3, 3-6, 6-0, 6-4, by Fernando Gonzalez. And that's when the elephant stood on its hind legs.

Federer knows: He is only three wins away, with a 38-1 record against the five other players still alive in Paris. This is his best chance to win his first French Open, to tie Pete Sampras' record of 14 Slam titles, to end the debate over who, at last, should be considered the greatest of all time. Anyone who has seen Nadal dominate Federer the last few years, learning how to beat him on grass and hardcourt as well as clay, will be tempted to place an asterisk on a Federer victory here because he didn't go through his Spanish tormentor in the process (Note: For the definitive rendering of the Federer-Nadal rivalry, read Jon Wertheim's superb new book, Strokes of Genius). Federer himself paid lip-service, in English, to this conceit Monday -- "of course, my dream scenario is to beat Rafa here in the finals".

But when asked, in French, about that dream final against Rafa, Federer said, "Never mind who you beat -- as long as you win."

A decade ago, Andre Agassi won in Paris to complete the career Grand Slam and transform his reputation forever. If Federer can capture the French title? His resume would then be better than Sampras', better than Rod Laver's, better than Bjorn Borg's. History won't care who he beat, or how he plays -- so long as he wins. Or as Federer might say -- in French of course -- "Du moment que je gagne."

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