Federer wins U.S. Open, putting him in close

NEW YORK – Two sets.

In the end, on paper, that’s all that separated Roger Federer from a true Grand Slam this year.

Two sets.

And as he lived it up into the wee hours of Monday with his inner circle at a bistro in Manhattan’s trendy Meatpacking District, celebrating the U.S. Open title that gave him three major championships in 2006, Federer took a moment to ponder what could have been.

“It hit me last night, you know, when I actually realized that I’ve been in all major finals in the same year: I was so close to winning a Grand Slam,” Federer said Monday during a 20-minute interview with a small group of reporters at a Midtown hotel. “But I’m very happy with three, of course.”

As well he should be.

Federer went 27-1 at tennis’ four premier tournaments, winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon before his triumph at Flushing Meadows. The lone blemish? A four-set loss to No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the French Open final. Remarkable as his year was, it’s worth considering that if Federer had won three sets instead of one on that 90-degree day in June, he would have become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to complete a calendar-year Grand Slam.

“I knew that I had an opportunity. But it’s so far-fetched that you don’t want to put yourself under pressure. I’m never going to say openly, ‘I’m going to go for the Grand Slam.’ Because you have to first win the Australian Open, and then see what happens at the French,” Federer said. “Before having won those two, no point in talking about it.”

He has yet to conquer Roland Garros. But, still only 25, he’s won Wimbledon the past four years, the U.S. Open the past three, and the Australian Open twice for a total of nine majors – five shy of Pete Sampras’ record.

It’s a pursuit that merits as close attention as Tiger Woods’ chase of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 golf Grand Slam titles. Woods owns 12, although unlike Federer, he can boast of a career Grand Slam.

Woods has done something else Federer hasn’t: win four majors in a row. He did it from the 2000 U.S Open in June through the 2001 Masters in April. And Woods, too, knows what it’s like to fall a tad short of a true Grand Slam: In 2005, he won two majors and finished a total of four shots out in the other two.

The two superstars met Sunday, chatting before and sharing champagne after Federer beat Andy Roddick 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1 in the U.S. Open final. Woods and Federer began text-messaging a few months ago, but their schedules never allowed for a face-to-face conversation.

“I arrived in the States and everybody was again talking about us,” Federer said Monday, referring to comparisons made between his success in tennis and Woods’ in golf. “I was like, ‘Wow. This is quite interesting.’ I don’t mind talking about Tiger, because I’m a big fan of his and everything. And then I thought, ‘I’d like to finally meet him, not only just talk about him, like some stranger or something, because I feel so close and yet so far.'”

They are represented by the same agency, and Federer sent word he’d like something arranged. Woods sent word back, before the U.S. Open, that he’d show up for the final.

How’s that for pressure? Well, Federer kept his end of the bargain, and Woods did, too, sitting in the front row of Federer’s guest box Sunday.

In golf and tennis, greatness is measured at Grand Slams, though Federer does quite well elsewhere, too. He’s 70-5 this year, with a tour-leading eight titles from 13 tournaments. Since replacing Roddick at No. 1 in February 2004, Federer has stayed on top, a 137-week run that’s the third longest. Jimmy Connors, now Roddick’s adviser, holds the record of 160.

“Obviously, he’s the guy everybody’s chasing,” Connors said. “Certainly, Federer’s record the last three, four years has been incredible.”

And yet, Federer made the sort of admission Monday that one doesn’t hear from Woods: “Doubt is always there for me.”

“I get doubts once in a while, and early on in the tournament, they’re always there,” said Federer, who called his U.S. Open quarterfinal against James Blake the toughest test of the two weeks. “But it doesn’t mean I’m going to play bad. It’s just, like, all of a sudden, you have these five minutes where you think, ‘Maybe I’m not going to win this thing.’ Because maybe I just don’t feel quite right or maybe the other guys are playing very well. It’s just about turning that corner at the right moment and telling yourself, ‘Well, I think you can do it again.’ And that’s what I did.”

Simple as that.

He’s won nine of the last 14 majors, but it’s fascinating to look back and realize that Federer lost in the first round three times in a span of five Grand Slam tournaments right before his streak began.

The last of those early exits came to the unheralded Luis Horna of Peru at the 2003 French Open. In retrospect, Federer said, it was an upset that helped shape the champion he’s become.

“I remember going into the tournament feeling so confident, going like, ‘I could win this thing. I’m playing so well at the moment.’ I lost the first set and thought, ‘There’s no chance I’m coming back in this match. And if I do, seven matches to play, there’s no way I’m going to win the French Open.’ All of a sudden, within 45 minutes, my whole dreams were shattered. I was so weak mentally,” Federer recalled.

“When I lost the match, there was no need to explain what happened because I knew exactly what was wrong. I had to toughen up a bit, you know? It was just one of those moments when I finally realized I have to still change a few things because I thought I had everything figured out by then. But I didn’t.”

He certainly does now.