It made a gorgeous thwack in the sun. It went screaming across the court and above the net and toward the sideline without a hint of fear. It landed obediently maybe two inches shy of doom.
The inside-out forehand Roger Federer struck at midday Monday at Roland Garros already drips with relevance. Already it has rescued the alluring new narrative of the 2009 French Open, the question of whether Federer will capitalize on the shocking removal of his great nemesis Rafael Nadal and win the only Grand Slam china he lacks.
Already this desperate fourth-round forehand has enabled Federer to exhale and say, “I was in quite some danger right there.”
Looking ashen and hopeless and trailing Tommy Haas by two sets and by 4-3 and at break point, he ran around and struck that forehand, and it warded off that break point, and he climbed out of a chasm, and he allowed the week to hyperventilate on imagining that by Sunday night, that sole, saving forehand might occupy the pantheon of forehands.
Wednesday: Gael Monfils. Friday: Juan Martin Del Potro or Tommy Robredo. Sunday: Andy Murray, Fernando Gonzalez, Nikolay Davydenko or Robin Soderling, the odd duck who bullied No. 1 Nadal on Sunday and let the sports daily L’Equipe blare, “TREMBLEMENT DE TERRE,” or Earthquake, because the clay ground had shook.
That’s the path with the surreal absence of Nadal, Federer’s conqueror for the last four French Opens.
It starts with Monfils, who lent Andy Roddick’s daydream French Open a closing nightmare, leaving Roddick barking to tournament officials about the gathering darkness during a 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 pummeling that ended at 9:39 p.m. Monfils, the fast and elastic French crowd-thriller, supplied some hairy moments last year in a four-set semifinal loss to Federer.
As it leads to there and maybe from there, all the buzz heaps incongruously upon a former king who’s rationally only a slight favorite here. It does so because Federer, 27, has yearned to win this, and because he has spent years as the second-best clay-court player in the world, and because the Nadal-Federer dominance persuades people to assume Federer’s coterie must have had a keg party Sunday night.
“I’m really happy, because we stayed calm,” Federer said.
Then he emerged to a swell of applause that would persist, and began hitting arrhythmic strokes that made the whole match seem some a sort of odd punch line to Nadal’s defeat.
Said Haas: “Djokovic is out, Nadal is out, maybe Roger was feeling it a little bit knowing this is maybe a great opportunity for him to win and he puts a little extra pressure on him.”
Endangered to a 31-year-old, No. 63-ranked tennis senior citizen he’d beaten seven straight times, Federer finally struck that forehand and said, “I thought almost it was my first good shot of the match.”
He would win 15 of the last 17 games in a 6-7 (4), 5-7, 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 victory and was airborne even before Haas’ last errant return finished descending.
Federer said, “I knew I was going to look back on that shot. That saved me on the day, you know.”
Haas said, “So you just got to tip your hat and say, ‘That’s why he’s Roger Federer, you know.’ ”
All of Roger-loving Roland Garros seemed to say, “Whew.”