The tennis gods brewed up a storm around Roland Garros on Sunday afternoon as they prepared to welcome a new member into their midst. Roger Federer repelled the rain, thunder, and a certain Robin Soderling to take his rightful place among the immortals of the game.
The Swiss produced a near-flawless display, delighting his fans with the full range of shots that have made him arguably the greatest player of his era, to sweep aside Robin Soderling 6-1 7-6(1) 6-4 and seal his first-ever French Open title. The triumph enabled Federer to become only the sixth man in history to win all four Grand Slam tournaments, and also saw him equal Pete Sampras’ record of 14 majors.
The enormity of his achievement was evident on match point when Federer fell to the red earth of Roland Garros weeping tears of joy. Minutes later, Andre Agassi was on hand to present the Coupe des Mousquetaires and share in the Swiss legend’s delight as he held the trophy to the air, 10 years after the American had sealed his own career Slam with a far more hard-fought win here over Andrei Medvedev.
Federer owed his victory to a brilliant performance, by far his best of the tournament, in which he took a stranglehold on the match from the outset and clinically dissected his opponent’s game.
Seemingly overwhelmed by the event, Soderling was unrecognizable in the first set from the man who had swept all before him – including four-time champion Rafael Nadal – in his run to the final. The giant Swede was simply unable to find any rhythm or indeed any semblance of the form he had shown throughout the tournament, not that Federer gave him the slightest chance to settle.
The Swiss is a past master at winning Grand Slam finals and his experience was made to tell as he immediately got into his groove. His first serve was strong (firing down 16 aces throughout the match), his shot selection astute and return of serve simply breathtaking. The Swede’s wayward hitting early on made it easy for him, but Federer needed no second invitation to rack up the games and put some daylight between himself and his opponent.
Federer mixed up his shots brilliantly, slicing on the backhand side before accelerating his forehand follow-up to knock his opponent off guard. While Soderling’s earlier adversaries, including Nadal, had to a certain extent played into his hands by trying to outhit the Swede in hard-hitting baseline exchanges. Roger was not about to fall into the same trap. Making full use of his superb drop shot, tricky slice and mid-court angles, he moved the Swede forward and back almost at will.
The first set was over in the blink of an eye, 6-1, wrapped up in just 23 minutes. The only thing that could knock the world No2 off his stride was the on-court intruder who briefly unsettled his concentration at 2-1 in the second set. Federer lost that game, and with storm clouds beginning to hover over Philippe Chatrier court, the momentum gradually began to shift. Little by little, Soderling righted his ship, steadying his serve and finally hitting the booming forehands that had proved so devastating earlier over the previous fortnight.
The rain gained in intensity through the middle games of the second set, and with a delay looking more of a possibility, both players looked for the break that would give them a huge psychological advantage to take into the locker room. The drizzle eased off however, and Federer’s serve kept him out of trouble heading into the match-shaping tie-break.
The No2 seed then seized the moment to demonstrate why he is, for so many, the greatest player of all time. He banged down four aces no less, a forehand winner and a magnificent drop shot en route to a 7-1 success that earned him a two-set lead and definitively turned the match in his favour.
In a hangover from the tie-break, Soderling immediately dropped his serve in the next game – a crucial moment as the No23 seed actually looked the more dangerous player as the third set wore on. On the few occasions that he drew Federer into a long rally, Soderling would invariably pull out a winner, but the Swiss refused to be distracted from his game plan, throwing Soderling off his rhythm with kicking second serves when his first service began to falter and sending passing shots down the line whenever the Swede came to the net.
The Swede earned his first break point of the match at 1-3 and then again had a chance to break back at 4-5, 30-40 when Federer was serving for the match. Had he taken either of those two points, the outcome of the match may have been very different.
As it was, the end was what most neutrals had been hoping for, and suitably moving. Soderling mishit on break point, Federer coolly dispatched a volley to take himself to championship point, and then a big serve proved to be enough as Soderling netted the return. Federer fell to his knees, the crowd rose to their feet and the thunder rumbled overhead…