Roger Federer – The French Open Story
Roger Federer enjoyed unprecedented success at three of the four Major tournaments, but the French Open presented his toughest challenge by far.
1. The debut – 1999
Federer played the junior French Open in 1998, losing in the first round. His main draw debut in 1999 was also his outright Slam main draw debut. There he took on world number three and two-time US Open champion Pat Rafter. The teenager took the opening set off the Australian before falling 5-7, 6-3, 6-0, 6-2.
2. Ups and downs – 2000-2004
In 2000 and 2001, Federer improved by reaching the fourth round and then the quarter-finals. In both instances he lost to Alex Corretja, quarter-finalist in 2000 and runner-up in 2001. That second run represented the Swiss’ first run to the quarter-finals of a Major.
2002 and 2003 were not good for Federer, losing in the first round both years in straight sets to players ranked outside the top 40. Ranked number one in the world in 2004, his sixth go in Paris was slightly improved. There he reached the third round before losing to three-time champion Gustavo Kuerten 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
3. Federer breaks through but is held at bay – 2005-2008
After titles at the three other Slams, Federer was yet to reach the semi-finals on the Parisian clay entering 2005. He changed that by defeating the likes of Fernando Gonzalez and 1998 champion Carlos Moya. The world number one did not drop a set before facing a young Rafael Nadal on the Spaniard’s 19th birthday.
The teenager had too much for the Swiss on their third ever meeting, coming through 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 to reach the final. He went on to clinch the title in his first appearance at the event. He was just the third man ever to achieve the feat at Slam level, after Mats Wilander in Paris in 1982 and Andre Agassi in Melbourne in 1995.
A year on and Federer was similarly impressive in the French capital. He reached the final this time, again meeting Nadal. And again Nadal won in four sets to seal a second Major crown. 2007, another year, another final for Federer, this time with just one set dropped en route. But again the young Spaniard denied him the title, again in four sets, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Despite difficulties with mononucleosis in 2008, Federer still managed to excel in Paris. He defeated Fernando Gonzalez and Gael Monfils to face Nadal in a third successive final. Unfortunately then came his heaviest defeat there yet, losing one of the most one-sided Slam finals ever, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0. It seemed Federer would forever be stopped from completing the Career Grand Slam.
4. A shining opportunity – 2009
Apparently the only way Federer would ever win the French Open was if Nadal happened to lose there. With no precedent for that, no one could predict when that might happen. But in 2009 it finally did. The man who did it was Sweden’s Robin Soderling, downing the Spaniard 6-2, 6-7 (2-7), 6-4, 7-6 (7-2) in the fourth round.
Federer had a golden chance to finally win the French Open, but nearly let it slip immediately. The day after Nadal lost, Federer found himself two sets to love and break point down at 3-4 in the third set against 63rd ranked Tommy Haas.
But the Swiss dug deep to hold serve, break the German and seal the set. He went on to win 12 of the next 14 games to win the match and progress to the quarter-finals.
Another come-from-behind win against Juan Martin del Potro saw Federer into his fourth consecutive final, but first not against Nadal. Soderling backed up his victory over the four-time champion by making it to meet Federer for the title. But the Swede was outplayed by Federer as the world number two finally secured the Career Grand Slam. In doing so he became just the third man in the Open Era to achieve the feat after Rod Laver and Andre Agassi. He also drew level with Pete Sampras on a men’s record 14 Slam titles.
“This might be my greatest victory, or rather the win that lifts the most pressure off my shoulders for the rest of my career,” Federer said after the triumph. “I can enjoy playing and never have to hear that I’ve never won Roland Garros.”
5. A sublime upset – 2011
Federer again met Soderling at the 2010 event, this time losing to the world number seven in the quarter-finals. In 2011, Federer was in fine form. He reached the semi-finals without dropping a set, including wins over 14th ranked Stan Wawrinka and world number nine Gael Monfils.
Next came Novak Djokovic, the Serb on an astounding 43-match winning streak stretching back into 2010 and that year’s ATP Finals. It would take a huge effort form any player to stop the world number two. And Federer was the one to topple the powerhouse, winning 7-6 (7-5, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5) to reach his fifth French Open final.
As had been the case three times before, Nadal stood in his way. And as before the Spaniard prevailed, this time in four sets 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
6. Federer fades from Paris – 2012-2018
Federer only made it past the quarter-finals once at the next four events, a run below his highest of standards. He made it to the semi-finals in 2012, losing to Djokovic there in straight sets. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga got the better of him in the 2013 quarter-finals, whereas Latvian Ernests Gulbis claimed victory against Federer in the fourth round in 2014.
In 2015 it was compatriot Stan Wawrinka who defeated Federer in 2015. Downing the world number two in straight sets in the quarter-finals, Wawrinka went on to win the tournament for his second career Slam title.
A back injury ahead of the 2016 event meant Federer was forced to withdraw from the tournament. This marked the end of a then record streak of 65 consecutive Slam main draw appearances which began at the 2000 Australian Open.
Concerned about his longevity, Federer elected to skip the clay court season altogether, including the French Open, in 2017 and 2018.
7. Federer’s final forays in France – 2019-2021
Aged 37 and having not played the event since 2015, few expected Federer to return to Roland Garros. But he did just that in 2019, rolling back the years to reach the quarter-finals without dropping a set. There he faced Wawrinka as in 2015, but this time downed his friend in four sets.
He then met Nadal for a sixth time at the French Open, their first battle there since the 2011 final. It was not much of a battle though as the Spaniard won 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 on the way to claiming his 12th title on the Parisian clay.
After missing the Covid-delayed 2020 event, Federer made his last appearance in 2021 at the age of 39. He secured wins over Denis Istomin, Marin Cilic and Dominik Koepfer to reach the fourth round. However, his eyes set on a push for Wimbledon, the Swiss withdrew from his encounter with Matteo Berrettini, handing the Italian a walkover. So ended the French Open journey of experienced all the joy and heartache of the clay court Slam.
Federer Career Record at the French Open
Federer made 17 consecutive appearances in Paris from his 1999 debut to 2015, competing twice more for 19 appearances total. He won 73 matches there, placing him third among men in the Open Era in terms of match wins.
Win-loss: 73-17, 81% win percentage (3rd most wins Open Era among men, 4th overall men and women)
Title Strike Rate: 1 of 19
Finals record: 1-4
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