Roger Federer: Back at Roland-Garros
On the 10th anniversary of their RG triumphs, Federer and Kuznetsova make welcome returns.
Can it really be a whole decade since Roger Federer and Svetlana Kuznetsova captured their sole Roland-Garros crowns? For the incomparable Swiss, victory over Robin Soderling famously marked the completion of his career Grand Slam, while Kuznetsova earned her second Slam title five years after her first, at Flushing Meadows.
Yet these two, who between them have visited this tournament 33 times, are linked not only by their magical 2009 on the Parisian clay, but also a huge mutual admiration – even if their respective feeling for the surface itself may not be in quite such accord.
Roland-Garros has become Kuznetsova’s most fruitful Grand Slam territory – apart from her 2009 triumph, she has four quarter-finals and a semi to her name, having made the second week a dozen times.
Conversely, its Federer's least-productive Grand Slam venue, yet even though 20-time Grand Slam champion has lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires just once, his remaining record here is one any player would be proud of – four further finals (all lost to Rafael Nadal), another two semis and a quartet of appearances in the last eight.
That history is all the more extraordinary given that Federer has missed the last three editions of the championship.
Enough of the statistics; more on the mutual admiration, stretching back to the day in 2007 when Federer was asked to name his favourite player on the women’s tour.
“Kuznetsova,” he replied without hesitation. “I like her game. She plays well.”
The Russian was so thrilled when Federer’s opinion was relayed to her that she literally could not believe it.
“I thought ‘No, it’s a joke’,” she recalls. “So I checked it myself on the internet. It was unbelievable to hear my hero say this. If I had to choose a compliment from anybody, it’s definitely the best I ever heard. Roger is a legend and to have him say that is almost a dream. Roger is the best and I’m so proud to be his fan. He is really cool, especially with me, which makes me love him even more. Nobody is cooler than Roger. He is from another planet.”
It’s safe to assume Kuznetsova is as excited as everyone else by the prospect of Federer’s return to Roland-Garros for the first time since 2015. Despite his three-year hiatus, this will be the 37-year-old’s 18th Roland-Garros.
When he missed the 2016 edition with back and knee problems, it snapped a run of 65 consecutive Slam appearances stretching back to the start of the century. In 2017 and 2018, he missed the entire clay seasons to protect himself for the more rewarding grass. But while the tactic bore fruit with an eighth Wimbledon in 2017, last year he fell in the quarters to Kevin Anderson, prompting former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash to muse that Federer actually needed to play more often to be at his optimum.
Perhaps Federer agrees, and hence his appearances in Madrid and Rome this season. But in the Spanish capital he lost to Dominic Thiem having held two match points, while at the Foro Italico he had to save match points to beat Borna Coric, before withdrawing with a right leg injury.
It all feels very different to the run-up to Roland-Garros 2009, when he defeated Nadal on clay for only the second time to win Madrid (at that time, the last big event before Paris). Roland-Garros produced the ultimate shock when the Spaniard – already a four-time defending champion – then experienced his first-ever defeat on the French clay, to Soderling, installing Federer as hot favourite. Having battled past Juan Martin del Potro in a five-set semi, the Swiss brushed aside Soderling to take the title. As he equalled Pete Sampras’s then-record 14 Grand Slams, Federer wept tears of joy.
Kuznetsova’s own 2009 odyssey included an epic quarter-final victory over Serena Williams. She blew hot and cold in defeating Sam Stosur to reach the final, before mauling world No.1 Dinara Safina to take the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen.
With her 34th birthday fast approaching, Kuznetsova has endured a bumpy ride of late. In October 2017 her ranking was still as high as No.8, but wrist surgery the following month has proven difficult to recover from conclusively. Her 2018 season began in March and ended in September as the problem continued to hamper her.
At Roland-Garros she lost in the first round for the first time since 2003; albeit to 2016 champion Garbine Muguruza. In August her ranking slumped to 128, the lowest since she was in her mid-teens in 2002 – yet that was exactly when she captured her 18th career title, in Washington.
On the brink of her 17th main draw appearance at Roland-Garros she is ranked 89th, and has spoken of the “endless rehabilitation” still necessary, along with a shifting focus to the future just a couple of years away.
“I will have to find new goals and priorities in my life,” she says. “Without hesitation I would definitely change my tennis trophies for a happy family life.”
For both these great Roland-Garros champions, their careers are in the concluding arc. On the Paris clay in 2019, each will want to revive memories of their 2009 annus mirabilis.