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.”
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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