Sunday, January 28, 2007

Roger King Of Court Down Under Again, Sweeps Past Gonzalez Into History

After Andy Roddick was eliminated in embarrassing fashion by Roger Federer, he was asked to assess remaining semifinalists Fernando Gonzalez or Tommy Haas' chances of getting the better of the Swiss world No.1 in the final. He answered in one word: "Slim."

Ultimately, the American was proven right. Even a solid performance by red hot No.10 seeded Chilean Gonzalez couldn't threaten Federer in Sunday night's epic final in which the incomparable top seed swept past his worthy opponent in a competitive straight sets, 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-4 before a capacity audience at Rod Laver Arena to repeat as champion, claiming his third Australian Open in four years.

Not surprisingly, the 25 year-old Federer made history by becoming the first Grand Slam champion on the men's side to not drop a set since the legendary Bjorn Borg accomplished the feat back in 1980 when he won the French Open. He became only the fourth player in the Open Era to pull it off and just the second to ever win down under without losing a set since legend Ken Rosewall in 1971. Fittingly, he was in attendance and was acknowledged by a jovial Federer during the trophy presentation.

"Equalling records, doing something that hasn't been done for a long time, it's really nice, there's no doubt," the very pleased winner said afterwards to the AP. "It wasn't ever a goal for me up to win a Slam without dropping a set."

"All I care in the end is to hopefully hold that trophy, even though it might be 20-18 in the fifth set. I don't mind, as long as I win. Of course, now that it's all over, it's great to think, 'Wow', you know, not having dropped a set. It's quite amazing."

Amazing is just one of the many adjectives which can be used to describe Federer's dominant play over the past few years which has now seen him win 10 career slams since claiming his first one back in 2003 at Wimbledon. By doing so, he joined exclusive company which includes Bill Tilden (10), Rod Laver and Borg (11), Roy Emerson (12) and Pete Sampras (14).

"All these Grand Slams since 2003, that's what, for me, is really scary, how many I've won," the very modest champ admitted. "I was thinking about it this morning actually when I woke up."

"Like if somebody would have told me I'd win 10 Grand Slams from mid '03 till today, I never would have thought there was any chance of doing something like that. I would have signed up for just one, you know."

Entering his record-tying seventh consecutive final, the Swiss maestro was the overwhelming favorite against a hot player who had dismissed Lleyton Hewitt, James Blake, Rafael Nadal and Haas en route to his first career slam final. Certainly, in playing his best tennis of his career, the 26 year-old Gonzalez was no slouch. It was in the first set that the very talented Chilean gave Federer all he could handle.

With both players looking to take control of points early in rallies with their lethal groundstrokes and use of every part of the court, each committed more unforced errors than usual. Taking big swings at the ball in an attempt to attack each other's serves, they produced a topsy turvy set which took almost as long for either to get through their semis. The one hour 10-minute set could've easily gone to Gonzalez. It was his resilient play during the eighth game which kept it on serve. Digging out of a hole, he fought off break points to hold and square the match at four all. Continuing to play aggressively, he cameback from 30-0 down to break Federer thanks to drawing a few wild misses. It gave him a golden opportunity to serve out the set. One point from it, he blew the chance as Federer saved two set points before bouncing right back to break. If only he had nailed that open forehand down the line on the second set point instead of hitting the net. But it wasn't to be.

After Federer held for 6-5, he applied heavy pressure on Gonzalez in the 11th game. But to Gonzalez' credit, he saved four set points before ripping a clean backhand winner up the line to force a tiebreaker. So many instances during his brilliant career, Federer has raised his level in these breaking the will of opponents. He did it to recently retired American icon Andre Agassi two years ago during the U.S. Open final. Once again, Federer saved his best for the breaker by getting into a zone taking the first five points before closing out the set on his serve thanks to a crosscourt forehand winner.

"It's just a different game, especially the first set. I was missing a few of them to give him the upper hand. He should have won the first, but I came back and won. That might have been crucial," he said.

"The match may have been different if I had won the first set," Gonzalez admitted after falling to 0-10 against Federer. "Every time I have played Roger, I've never won the first set, so that really may be the key."

But if Federer thought it would be easy, his opponent had other ideas. After having his right shoulder treated by a trainer during a break, Gonzalez never went away holding serve the first three times thanks to some outstanding shotmaking which produced 31 winners. The problem was that his opponent was having an even easier time holding. In fact, Federer only dropped two points on his serve the entire set. When he finally broke Gonzalez in the seventh game for a 4-3 lead, the writing was on the wall. After each exchanged holds, he easily served out the set finishing it off with a sliced ace down the middle to pull within one set of his ultimate destiny.

The third set proved to be eerily similar as Gonzalez did everything he could to stay with Federer. But the world No.1's uncanny ability to find ridiculous angles like a short crosscourt forehand which setup a couple of break points in a pivotal seventh game during the competitive 43-minute set proved to be too much. Along with some impressive net play which saw Federer convert 34-of-43 (79 percent) and not allowing Gonzalez another look at his serve, the repeat winner held twice more closing it out in style by striking a backhand winner down the line on the full run. After the crowd pleasing shot which produced his 45th winner, he dropped his racket and fell to the court rolling around in celebration before getting a warm reception at the net from Gonzalez.

"I have to congratulate again Roger," Gonzalez told the crowd after being presented with the runner's up crown. "He's on the way to be maybe the best player ever. He is a great champion who played a really good match today, all week-- almost all his life. So I can take a lot out of this tournament."

" He makes tennis very simple, and when he gets a chance he takes it."

Federer has often been referred to as a genius.

"I mean, look, I guess I'm the best tennis player in the world," he said.

"You can call me a genius because I'm outplaying many of my opponents, kind of maybe playing a bit different, you know, winning when I'm not playing my best. All of that maybe means a little bit of that. So it's nice."

Nice would be one way to describe his tennis along with how well he handles himself off the court. After winning his third straight major and sixth in the last seven with the exception of last year's French falling to repeat winner Rafael Nadal, is a Grand Slam on the horizon this year? First he'll attempt to complete the career Grand Slam this May.

Stay tuned.

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