| This year Federer’s progress has been more measured than meteoric
London: With the tag ‘the new Pete Sampras’ hanging round his neck, Roger Federer might be expected to begin his collection of Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon.
Ever since finishing 1998 as number one junior in the world, the exciting young Swiss has attracted comparisons with the American winner of a record 14 Grand Slam crowns.
But while the verdant lawns of the All England Club suit the stylish Swiss well — he ended seven-times champion Sampras’s 31-match winning streak there in 2001 — Federer is primed to vaunt his versatility on a very different stage.
A red-hot start to the year has vaulted Federer into a French Open seeding of fifth and a place as one of the favourites for the second Grand Slam of the season, which starts on Monday.
Victory on the clay of Munich in April was his third title of the year but his first on clay, following wins in Marseille and Dubai.
Importantly though, it boosted his sometimes fragile confidence on a surface better suited to more patient players.
“Clay is not my favourite surface and I’m surprised to be playing so well after just a few weeks of training,” Federer said after winning the $355,000 event without losing a set.
“I never expected this, it’s amazing,” he said. “If you don’t lose a set it’s a pretty good tournament. I’ve won three titles this year already and it’s only halfway through the season.
“To play so well on clay gives me confidence for this season. I know I can win tournaments on clay and that winning Hamburg (in 2002) wasn’t a coincidence.”
That victory in Hamburg last year at the Masters Series event prompted tipsters to rate the youngster a good outside bet for the French title 12 months ago. He had just thrashed the mighty Marat Safin 6-1, 6-3, 6-4 in his first Masters Series final at the Rothenbaum club and looked in great form.
Eight days later though, he was on his way home from the French capital, the victim of an inspired performance by Morocco’s Hicham Arazi and the heavy going on a rain-sodden court.
This year, however, his progress has been more measured than meteoric. A week after bagging the Munich title he marched into the final of the Rome Masters with victories over claycourt specialists Tommy Robredo and Juan Carlos Ferrero only to lose in the final to another Spaniard, Felix Mantilla.
“Never again,” muttered the Swiss after allowing Mantilla to win 14 out of 17 break points to clinch the match.
Switzerland will hope he has learnt a harsh lesson that could prove decisive in Paris. Certainly in Davis Cup action Federer has proved himself a most resilient character — unbeaten this year as the Swiss look forward to a semi-final against Australia in September.
The Australian captain John Fitzgerald is certainly a fan. “Federer...I would say he’s the best player that we will have come up against in my three years,” he said. “He’s either ranked three or four at the moment but I think he’s much better than that.”
Federer’s easy action and ability to hit virtually any shot on every surface make him an outstanding talent. He now must prove he has the grit to win a Grand Slam event.
Tommy Haas pulls out
Meanwhile, Germany’s Tommy Haas has pulled out of the French Open, organisers said on Wednesday.
“Tommy Haas, who has not played since the beginning of the season, has pulled out of the 2003 French Open starting on Monday on the Roland Garros courts,” the organisers said in a statement.
Haas, 25, picked up a shoulder injury in December and was told he needed a six-month rest. He will be replaced in the final draw by a lucky loser.
The last wild card has been awarded to Australian Scott Draper, courtesy of an arrangement between the French and Australians federations. (Reuters)