Roger Federer returns to French Open on 10th anniversary of title, 20th anniversary of debut

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Roger Federer called it the most satisfying win of his career, next to his maiden Wimbledon title. Ten years ago, he at last conquered the red clay of Paris, capturing his first French Open title to complete the career Grand Slam.

It remains Federer’s lone Coupe des Mousquetaires as he returns this week to play the tournament for the first time since 2015. Many have speculated this could be the 37-year-old’s French farewell, but the most important voice has repeatedly shot that down.

“How much longer am I going to play? I wish I knew,” Federer said on ESPN at the Miami Open in March. “We’re not thinking about retirement because the more I think about it and the more I talk about it, the closer I am to it. I have no plans. There was talk about [retiring after] the Tokyo Olympics and all that, but that’s not true.”

Federer spoke again Friday, one day before the 20th anniversary of his first Grand Slam main-draw match and two days before he opens play against Italian Lorenzo Sonego. He said he didn’t know if he can win this year. The No. 3 seed, he reached the quarterfinals of his two clay events earlier this month.

In some ways, Federer feels similar to how he did going into the 2017 Australian Open, after missing the 2016 Olympics and U.S. Open due to a knee injury and seeing his ranking fall to No. 17. Federer then won the Australian Open, his first major in four and a half years, igniting a late 30s resurgence.

“A bit of the unknown,” he said. “I feel like I’m playing good tennis, but is it enough or is it enough against the absolute top guys when it really comes to the crunch? I’m not sure if it’s in my racket.”

FRENCH OPEN: TV Schedule | Men’s Draw | Women’s Draw

In 2009, Federer came to the French Open with a hint of desperation that he had been carrying for three years. Rafael Nadal beat him in the semifinals in 2005 and the final in 2006, 2007 and 2008, the last one a clinical 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in a tidy 108 minutes.

“I was like, man, how many more chances do I need to get the title?” Federer said not of 2008 but of 2006, the first of consecutive years he came to Paris seeking to complete the Roger Slam — holding all four major titles at once.

The chance in 2009 became an opportunity when Nadal was upset by Swede Robin Soderling in the round of 16. It ended a 31-match win streak to start Nadal’s Roland Garros career and closed his path to a fifth straight French Open title.

“My dream scenario is to beat Rafa here in the finals,” Federer said the next day, after coming from two sets down to outlast Tommy Haas, adding later, “I knew the day Rafa won’t be in the finals, I will be there and I will win. I always knew and that I believed in it.

“Even though people said, oh, he’s got to go through Rafa to win this title, I knew it wasn’t particularly the case because you can’t be in every Grand Slam final.”

So it happened. Federer and Soderling met on a windy, occasionally rainy Sunday with Bjorn Borg, Tony Parker and Eva Longoria in attendance. Federer spent the previous night watching CDs of his two most recent matches with Soderling, who had taken just one set in their nine career meetings.

It turned out to be one of Federer’s easier matches of the two weeks, a 6-1, 7-6 (1), 6-4 affirmation.

“I felt like I just played three, four finals of French Open this week because everybody expected me to win. It’s an unbelievable relief of pressure,” Federer said. “Of course there’s no Nadal on the other side of the net, but I beat him a couple of weeks ago on clay [in the Madrid final], so I really feel like I deserve it.”

It marked Federer’s 14th Grand Slam singles title, tying Pete Sampras‘ record. Federer is now at 20, Nadal at 17 and Novak Djokovic at 15. The greatest-ever debate is now fluid, but a decade ago John McEnroe asked Federer, as he cradled the Coupe des Mousquetaires on Court Philippe Chatrier, how it felt to be the GOAT.

“Am I the greatest of all time? We don’t know, but I definitely have many things going for me,” Federer said.

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Rafael Nadal can tie Roger Federer’s Slam record with 13th French Open

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For all of the many qualities contributing to Rafael Nadal’s unprecedented superiority at the French Open — the bullwhip of a high-bouncing lefty forehand, the reflex returns, the cover-every-corner athleticism, the endless energy and grit — there’s one element that stands above all the rest.

According to the opponent Nadal beat in the last two finals in Paris, anyway.

“You go into the match knowing that even your best tennis, even if you play it over three, four hours, might not be enough. I mean, if you do it, you maybe have a little chance, but you have to go to your limit on every single rally, every single point,” Dominic Thiem, who won the U.S. Open less than two weeks ago, told The Associated Press.

“That makes it not easy to go into the match,” Thiem said. “And that’s the mental part, I guess.”

When main-draw competition begins Sunday at Roland Garros, Thiem and every other player in the men’s bracket will be pursuing Nadal as the 34-year-old from Spain pursues history.

If Nadal manages to claim a 13th French Open championship — extending his own record for the most singles trophies won by anyone at any major tennis tournament — he would, more significantly, also collect his 20th Grand Slam title overall, tying Roger Federer’s record for a man.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Nadal’s tally elsewhere: four U.S. Opens, two Wimbledons, one Australian Open.

He spoke Friday in Paris about what “probably are the most difficult conditions for me ever in Roland Garros” — a lack of matches in 2020; a new brand of tennis balls (“super slow, heavy”); cooler weather and plenty of rain in the forecast.

“But you know what?” Nadal said. “I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible.”

Asked recently about the possibility of catching the 39-year-old Federer, out for the rest of the season after a pair of operations on his right knee, Nadal expressed a sentiment he’s uttered before.

Climbing the Grand Slam list, Nadal said, is “not an obsession at all.”

“I know that you put a lot of attention on all of this,” he replied when the topic was raised last week at the Italian Open, Nadal’s first tournament since February because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Of course I would love to finish my career with 25, but (that’s) something that probably will not happen. I’m going to keep fighting to produce chances, and then when I finish my career, let’s see, no?” he said. “I just want to keep enjoying tennis. And that’s it. If I am playing well, I know I normally have my chances. If not, going to be impossible. That’s it.”

There is, of course, another great of the game playing during this era and, like Nadal, gaining on Federer.

That would be No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, who had won five of seven major titles to raise his total to 17 before being disqualified at the U.S. Open for accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball while walking to a changeover.

In this oddest of years, the Grand Slam season will drawing to a close in France; the clay-court major was postponed from May until now because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Roland Garros is the last Slam, the last opportunity of this season. So we all know who the main favorite is there: Obviously, it’s Nadal. And everything that he has achieved there, losing maybe a couple matches in his entire career on that court … is probably the most impressive record that anybody has on any court,” Djokovic said. “So, yeah, of course you would put him right there in front as a favorite to win it.”

For the record: Nadal has won 93 of 95 matches in the French Open and his last 21 in a row.

So what makes him so dominant there?

“He’s an unbelievably great tennis player. Probably on clay, a little bit better than on the other surfaces,” Thiem said. “He’s left-handed, which makes it very uncomfortable. And then his forehand, the topspin on the clay, it’s cruel to play.”

Thiem takes notes and hopes to emulate aspects of Nadal’s game.

So do others.

In Rome, for example, two-time Grand Slam champion Simona Halep and one of her coaches, Artemon Apostu-Efremov, caught one of Nadal’s training sessions.

“We were watching the way he hits the ball, the acceleration, the energy he has on the court and the way he practices 100%. It’s always an inspiration,” Apostu-Efremov said.

“This dedication on the court and focus on court,” he said, “it’s something that, for sure, could be transferred to Simona.”

Nadal wound up losing his third match in Italy, which is neither ideal form nor the sort of prep work he is accustomed to ahead of Roland Garros.

Still, Nadal at the French Open is unlike anyone else, anywhere else.

“Regardless of how he feels, I’m sure he’ll find a way,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, a 2019 Australian Open semifinalist seeded No. 5 in Paris. “He always finds a way, every single year. Clay is his surface. I’m sure he’s going to do well.”

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Skate America will not have fans

Skate America
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Skate America, the top annual international figure skating competition held in the U.S., will not have spectators in Las Vegas from Oct. 23-25.

U.S. Figure Skating said the restriction was “due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in strict accordance with the Nevada Gaming Control Board guidelines.”

Skate America is the first top-level event of the season, kicking off the six-stop Grand Prix Series leading up to December’s Grand Prix Final, which is scheduled this season for Beijing.

The series has already been modified to restrict fields to skaters from the host country or to the event closest to their training location.

Grand Prix fields have not been announced, though two-time world champion Nathan Chen said last month he hoped to go for a fourth straight Skate America title.

Chen trains in California. Most, if not all, top U.S. skaters train in the U.S. or Canada, which means they will compete in Skate America or Skate Canada if they participate in the Grand Prix Series at all.

Two-time U.S. women’s champion Alysa Liu will not be old enough to compete on the Grand Prix until the 2021-22 Olympic season.

Skaters are limited to one Grand Prix start this season. In past seasons, they’ve typically competed twice.

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