So Tony Roche has been tip-toed out of the Roger Federer camp with just two weeks to go until the start of the French Open. For a man whose name has become a byword for coolness under pressure, Federer’s decision to sack his mentor is an odd one. It smacks of desperation, and looks like an irrational reaction to his recent run of poor form.
As Leo Schlink noted in today’s Herald-Sun :
Roche, 61, was courtside for just two of (Federer’s four recent losses), yet has been asked to carry the can for Federer’s worst form slump since reaching No.1.
The decision also brings into sharp focus Federer’s mindset as he finetunes his preparation for Roland Garros. He wants the French Open so badly it has become an obsession.
Without that title on the red clay in Paris, Federer’s brilliant career, the beauty of his effortless groundstrokes, his mantle as the successor to Rod Laver as the greatest ever will forever be sullied. There will always be that asterisk next to his name. Yes, but he couldn’t win a French Open.
In much the same way that Ivan Lendl’s domination of tennis in the 1980’s never extended to the grass courts at Wimbledon, where he was twice a beaten finalist, and came to detract from an otherwise phenomenal career.
Federer’s decision to dispense with Roche’s services came on the day his clay-court nemesis, world No.2 Rafael Nadal, stretched his clay-court winning streak to 77 matches by storming past Fernando Gonzalez in the final of the ATP event in Rome.
With the Spaniard’s squat muscular figure seemingly growing by the week across the net, at least in Federer’s mind, the Swiss surely fears Nadal becoming so imposing on clay he will deny him his holy grail.
Even in that weird exhibition a couple of weeks ago when the world’s best two players were asked to play on a court that was grass on one side of the net and clay on the other, Nadal triumphed in three close sets.
The Federer predicament brings to mind the list of sporting greats who couldn’t quite seal the deal and guarantee immortality in their chosen field. In other words, Those who Fell One Short. The stadiums, tennis courts and golf courses of the world are littered with examples.
Ken Rosewall, like Lendl, won everything except Wimbledon. Sam Snead claimed a record 82 events on the US PGA Tour but never took out the event he most wanted to win, his national championship, the US Open.
Greg Norman never won a major championship in the United States, despite finishing runner-up in the Masters, US Open and US PGA, and having at least two of those pickpocketed from him as he was composing his victory speech.
In snooker, Jimmy “The Whirlwind” White was perhaps the game’s greatest natural talent, bustling around the table at breakneck speed and racking up enormous breaks with an extraordinary nonchalance. Yet, White finished runner-up in the world championship six times without ever clinching the title.
Ron Clarke never won an Olympic gold medal despite his dominance in long-distance running where he smashed a swathe of world records. And the list goes on.
Which is why some of sport’s greatest drama can be found at those times when sportsmen and women perform an act of redemption that delivers them the one championship or gold medal to which they had fanatically devoted their careers.
Those who saw the unalloyed joy of middle-distance great, Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj, after winning the 1500 metres at the Athens Olympics (having been tripped up in the Atlanta 1500m final in 1996 and pipped on the line by a Kenyan in Sydney) will know all about that.
Most of the time, the French Open is a tiresome borefest, of marginal interest to all but the most committed tennis fan. Watching Gustavo Kuerten or Sergi Bruguera, and their ballooning groundstrokes and interminable rallies, play was no more fun than having root-canal surgery.
But the French Open this year, now that will be a different matter altogether. Seeing Federer at Roland Garros confront his clay-court demons, and Nadal, and chase the title that will guarantee him his place in the pantheon, perhaps as the best ever, will be worth every one of those sleepless nights.