The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The best not good enough to be greatest

June 10: Rod Laver just survived a close call. Pete Sampras can breathe easy. Bjorn Borg’s hopes can die another day.

Contenders for the title of the greatest tennis player ever, they could have watched the issue settled today — only if Roger Federer had collared a few of those 17 break points early on the unforgiving Parisian red clay this evening.

Seldom in history would one match have meant so much to one player as today’s French Open final did to the elegant Swiss. This was the only Grand Slam missing from his cupboard of 10 — and such an omission has denied Sampras, even with his record 14 majors, the badge of history’s undisputed No. 1.

Federer has to win here to claim that crown, the pundits had agreed. “It’s just something he’s got to do. But against (Rafael) Nadal, it’s going to be tough,” John McEnroe, himself a former great, had warned.

And so it proved. After Nadal’s 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory, as the Spaniard was being smothered with hugs by family and friends in the stands, Federer sat in his courtside chair, silent and expressionless.

Nadal now has his third straight French Open, a feat achieved by no one else since 1914 except Borg. Federer, if he had won, would have been holding all four Grand Slams at the same time.

Only two men have achieved such a near-mythical feat, American Don Budge in 1938 and Australian Laver in 1962 and 1969.

Federer would also have joined the quintet to have done the “career Grand Slam” —winning each of the four majors at some point — Britain’s Fred Perry, Australians Laver and Roy Emerson, and Americans Budge and Andre Agassi.

The Swiss, beaten by Nadal in four sets in last year’s final, has missed another chance now.

Actually he missed 16.

Federer converted just one of his 17 break points, missing 11 in the first set itself. Two came in the fourth game and five in the sixth.

It’s been one of the few times the serene champion has looked as if his nerves couldn’t take the pressure of expectations. He made 60 unforced errors, compared with his opponent’s 28.

“It’s a shame, but I think I came closer to winning last year,” Federer said. “This year I was always behind and it was never easy. It’s not the last time I will play here and I will try all I can to win next year.”

“I am really sorry for Roger. He is a friend and I know he is a great champion, whether he wins or loses,” Nadal said.

Not the greatest, though… yet. Just one of the best players in history who, like Sampras, still cannot win at Roland Garros.

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