Federer focuses on career Slam

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The world's No. 1 player currently holds the other three Grand Slam titles.

PARIS -- Roger Federer pays attention to what people think.

He hears what's said about his game, his legacy. He also considers what's said about Pete Sampras, the player to whom his skills, drive and body of work are most often compared.

And here's what sticks with Federer, what motivates him to work harder and improve the tennis game that's made him No. 1 in the rankings for the past 121 weeks and counting:

If he never does manage to win the French Open, the only Grand Slam tournament he's yet to conquer, Federer will leave himself open to the same sort of criticism leveled at Sampras for never mastering the red clay of Roland Garros.

"Many people take away things from Sampras because he never won the French, saying his career was not complete, which I totally don't agree with. I think he had the best career of any player ever, you know? So to say his career is not complete, that is not fair," Federer said.

"But it still leaves the door open for attacks on him. Because they say he was maybe the best on grass, hard courts and indoor, but not the best on clay. I really don't think it's fair."

When play starts at the French Open today -- it's a 15-day event for the first time -- Federer will be trying to become the sixth man with a career Grand Slam. He'll also be bidding to win his fourth straight major championship, following Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and Australian Open, which would make him the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all of the sport's top titles simultaneously.

Which is why, Federer said, "I've been thinking about the French Open since the end of January."

Sampras won a record 14 major titles, but only once made it as far as the semifinals at the French Open.

For Federer to collect that noncalendar Slam, though, he might have to beat the player who's his chief nemesis: Rafael Nadal, the Spaniard with a 53-match winning streak on clay that ties Guillermo Vilas for the longest in the Open era.

Nadal, who turns 20 next week, will try to become the youngest player since Bjorn Borg in 1974 and 1975 to win consecutive French Open titles.

The kid known as "Rafa" provides a perfect foil for the Swiss star. Federer plays a stylish, all-court game highlighted by spectacular shots that no one else would attempt. Nadal plays a counterpunching, power-based game that's all about imposing his will. Federer rarely betrays a shred of emotion. Nadal is never too far from a celebratory uppercut. Heck, Federer's a righty, Nadal a lefty.

Consider this: Over the last two seasons, Federer is 1-4 against Nadal (including a loss in the 2005 French Open semifinals), and 118-3 against everyone else.

After beating Federer in a thrill-a-minute, five-set Rome Masters final this month, the No. 2-ranked Nadal felt compelled to say: "He's definitely, at the moment, better than any other player."

Federer and Nadal only could meet in the June 11 final.

Women's field wide open

The women's field is considered far more wide open, in part because top-seeded Amelie Mauresmo, Maria Sharapova and others are slowed by injuries or illness, while Serena Williams and Lindsay Davenport withdrew altogether.

"There's not one player, in my mind, who's the definite favorite," ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez said.

Remarkably, Martina Hingis is among those who could make a deep run. She left the sport in 2002 because of a series of foot and ankle injuries; she returned full time this year, winning the title in Rome by beating, among others, Venus Williams.

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