Seventeen Grand Slam titles but just one at Roland-Garros, one that proved so elusive that it takes pride of place in Roger Federer's extensive honours list. It was the culmination of the most challenging − and nail-biting − two weeks that the Swiss champion had ever experienced at a Grand Slam tournament. By clinching the title, he broke Pete Sampras' Grand Slam record: a fitting reward for his exemplary run at Roland-Garros, which is punctuated with numerous records but long hampered by the one and only Rafael Nadal. If it had not been for "Rafa", would Roger's Roland Garros story have been even more glorious? In spite of Nadal's monopoly, Federer still holds the record for the most matches played at the French Open, and only Nadal and Borg have played in more finals than the Swiss maestro.
Roger Federer - Roland-Garros 2009, the most precious jewel
On Tuesday 25th May 1999, spectators who had come to admire Patrick Rafter's classy attacking tennis on Suzanne-Lenglen Court discovered a 17-year-old rough diamond on the other side of the net: a certain Roger Federer, who had been invited by the organisers. In his debut appearance in a Grand Slam main draw, the reigning junior world champion proved that he was already capable of stealing a set from the Australian, who was world No.3 at the time and two-time defending US Open champion (5-7 6-3 6-0 6-2).
The tone was set: Roland Garros became a land of firsts for the aspiring champion. It was here that he reached a Grand Slam Round of 16 for the first time in 2000, just a year after his debut, then his first quarter-final in 2001. He made his first real play for victory in a major when he reached the final at the Porte d'Auteuil in 2002, fresh from his title at the Masters 1000 in Hamburg. This run of exploits was halted by a surprise first-round defeat against Hicham Arazi the following year, when the blossoming idyll between the Swiss native and Roland-Garros hit rough waters. Federer tripped up again in the 2003 edition against Luis Horna before falling victim to Gustavo Kuerten's swansong in 2004, as the newly-crowned world No.1.
One rival, but a sizeable one: "Rafa" Nadal
This would be the last time that decade that he would be knocked out earlier than the semi-final stage in Paris. However, he had to wait a long time before clinching the title and, as the years went by, the Coupe des Mousquetaires became the only major title missing from his trophy cabinet, when he was amassing titles at a rate of knots everywhere else. The thorn in his side was a certain left-handed Majorcan who had made the red clay his own: Rafael Nadal.
Throughout this period of fierce tennis rivalry between Roger and Rafa, Roland-Garros was the tournament in which they faced each other the most often, but the Spaniard always came out on top: four times in a row, in fact, in the semi-finals in 2005 then the final in 2006, 2007 and 2008. During the decade that Federer dominated the tennis world, head and shoulders above the rest, Rafael Nadal stubbornly blocked his path at Roland-Garros and, quite probably, stopped him from ever achieving the Calendar Grand Slam.
"You put a lot of pressure on my shoulders these last two weeks but you were there to support me in the difficult moments"
But Federer did not give up hope. In 2009, when his nemesis suffered his first ever defeat at Roland Garros at the hands of Robin Söderling, the Swiss, whose form was less majestic than in previous years, nevertheless found the necessary resources to reach the final, despite following a rockier road than all of his previous routes to the final put together. He overcame a brush with disaster in the second round when led 5-1 in the third set by Jose Acasuso, when the two men had one set apiece (7-6 5-7 7-6 6-2); he came back from the brink in the Round of 16 against Tommy Haas, who was just five points away from clinching the match when Federer saved a crucial break point at two sets to love and 4-3 in Haas' favour in the third set (6-7 5-7 6-4 6-0 6-2); and he somehow survived being backed into a corner by Juan Martin del Potro in the semis (3-6 7-6 2-6 6-1 6-4).
More demonstrative than ever when in difficulty – the match against "Delpo" might well be the most outwardly emotional match of his whole career − Federer saved the best for last and played his most praiseworthy match of the fortnight in the final, against the "king-slayer" Söderling (6-1 7-6 6-4).
"It's nice to be here on the podium as the winner, for a change. It's amazing," were Federer's first words, in French, after he was presented the Coupe des Mousquetaires. He then paid thanks to a long list of people − his parents, friends and family, past and present coaches, "legendary tennis players who made me want to play this sport" –, looking back on his career and highlighting what a great achievement this was for him. He did not forget to mention the Parisian spectators who had shown him such fondness: "Finally, I'd like to thank you all. You put a lot of pressure on my shoulders these last two weeks but you were there to support me in the difficult moments. This title is also a way of saying thank you."
As a reward for such a challenging fortnight and those five long years chasing after the French Open title, Federer claimed his most moving victory and set a record that even Nadal could not boast at the time: for the highest number of consecutive semi-final appearances in the French Open (five, from 2005 to 2009 – a record that Novak Djokovic has since broken). He also became the record-holder for the highest number of Grand Slam victories: Roland-Garros was his fourteenth major trophy, the same number as Pete Sampras, though the American never managed to triumph in Paris.
A title and a cascade of records
Roger Federer came within touching distance of a second Roland-Garros title in the year of his 31st birthday, but his semi-final masterpiece − arguably one of the best matches of the decade on all surfaces combined − against Novak Djokovic, who had thus far been unbeaten in 2011 (7-6 6-3 3-6 7-6), was not repeated on the Sunday against the inescapable Rafael Nadal (7-5 7-6 5-7 6-1). What might Federer's Parisian story have looked like if Rafa had not been around? His five finals in Paris – only Nadal and Björn Borg have done better at the French Open – and his record for the highest number of quarter-finals played (11), many which were consecutive (9), give us an idea of what could have been.
An amalgam of excellence and longevity (17 consecutive participations in the tournament between 1999 and 2015, the year he turned 34, when he was beaten in the quarter-finals by the future winner of the tournament, Stan Wawrinka) have earned him yet another record: the highest number of matches played at Roland Garros (81). And this serious pretender to the title of "Greatest Player of All Time" no doubt has another few pages to write in his dazzling book of achievements.
Roger Federer's record at Roland-Garros
- 65 victories, 16 defeats
- 1 title (2009), 4 finals (2006, 2007, 2008, 2011), 2 semi-finals (2005, 2012) and 4 quarter-finals (2001, 2010, 2013, 2015). Roger Federer also won Wimbledon seven times (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012), the US Open five times (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008) and the Australian Open four times (2004, 2006, 2007, 2010).
- 17 participations at Roland-Garros (the first in 1999 at the age of 17)
- 55 matches played on Centre Court (the first in 2001 against Alex Corretja in the quater-finals)
- Notable wins over Fernando Gonzalez (round of 32 in 2005, quarter-final in 2008), Carlos Moya (round of 16 in 2005), David Nalbandian (semi-final in 2006), Nikolay Davydenko (semi-final in 2007), Gaël Monfils (semi-final in 2008, quarter-finals in 2009, 2011, round of 16 in 2015), Juan Martin del Potro (semi-final in 2009, quarter-final in 2012), Robin Söderling (2009 final), Stan Wawrinka (round of 16 in 2010, 2011), Novak Djokovic (semi-final in 2011).