Sunday, June 7, 2009

Finally, Tears of Joy as Federer Secures 14th Slam

If Rafa Nadal is the King of Clay, then Roger Federer is the King of Tennis.

On an overcast, blustery day in Paris, Federer's light was shining brightly throughout, as the greatest tennis legend of his era, and perhaps all others as well, coolly dismissed Swede Robin Soderling in straight sets, 6-1, 7-6(1), 6-4.

All French Open finals are special, but this years version went above and beyond. The French crowd was abuzz prior to the match, with celebrities, dignitaries, and tennis legends all perched on the edge of their seats in anticipation of the Swiss Maestro's quest for tennis immortality.

They got what they wanted and then some.

Unlike many of his matches at Roland Garros this year, Federer took control of the affair from the onset. Using a variety of power, precision, and concise drop volleys to keep the nervous Soderling off balance, Federer raced quickly to a commanding lead and in the process seized the psychological advantage over the 6'4" Soderling.

The Swede seemed unable to access the strokes that had enabled him to overwhelm the rest of his opponents en route to his first Grand-Slam final appearance, and much of this had to do with Federer's convincing play.

Federer broke the Swede's serve in each of his first two service games, using stultifying drop shots and deep service returns to confuse the suddenly innefectual Soderling. After the players traded holds to go to 5-1, Federer secured his third break in four games (and the set) with Soderling parked helplessly at the net as a backhand passing shot whizzed by him.

In addition to securing the three breaks, Federer's serve was working for him as well, as he did not face a break point, and only lost one point on his serve during the lopsided twenty-three minute first set.

But Soderling seemed to shake the nerves as play continued, and suddenly suspense began to build as a light rain started to fall midway through the second set.

With Soderling serving to force a second set tiebreaker, Federer managed to bring him to deuce, but the brawny Swede gutted out the hold.

Prior to the onset of the second set tiebreak, there was a sense that the match could go either way. But as it got underway, it quickly became apparent that this was to be Federer's day.

A Federer ace started the tiebreak, and was met with boisterous approval from the crowd. Then Soderling reminded the crowd that he was still on the court with an ace of his own.

But his Soderling's presence, like so many of Federer's opponents on these grand stages, was quickly forgotten again.

In a remarkable display of clutch tennis and a champions poise and sense of timing, Federer reeled off six consecutive points, including four aces on his only four serves of the tiebreak. With the crowd on its feet, relishing in the moment and fully resonating with the significance of this historic match, Federer had all but slayed the mighty dragon known as Soderling.

The clinical precision with which Federer deployed his strokes in this tiebreaker, under such heavy pressure and expectations from both himself and all of the tennis world, was truly surreal. It was beyond clutch. Remarkably, while we have all been so busy taking Federer to task for his diminished skills and his need for a full-time coach, the elegant and imposing (and stubborn) legend was busy ignoring our uneducated opinions and in the process preparing the most electric display of tennis of his whole career for this moment.

At two sets to none, it was all over but the coronation.

As the third set progressed with Federer up a break and Soderling just trying to stay close, Federer's face wore a look of indescribable emotional depth. It seemed as if he was a fan of himself, as if he were able to stand both outside and within the moment, both appreciating and basking in the glory of the greatness that he was in the process of achieving and also blocking it out (albeit barely) to go about the business at hand.

As he served for the match, there was a thrilling sense of heaviness in the air. The unique sense that this was the moment the crowd had been waiting for permeated the rafters of Stade Philippe Chatrier, and worked it's way through everyone in attendance. What had seemed so impossible at the start of this French Open was now moments from fruition.

Federer missing a swinging volley long to give Soderling a break point opportunity only served to heighten the intense drama, the anticipation, and the enduring love and appreciation for a man who has meant everything to tennis for so many years.

Mercifully, Soderling shanked a forehand and wasted his break point opportunity.

"I was very nervous at the beginning of the third set because I knew how close I was," said a jubilant Federer. "The last game, obviously you can imagine how difficult that game was. It was almost unplayable for me, because I was just hoping to serve some good serves and hoping that he was going to make four errors. It was that bad."

Two points later it was over. The ever-elusive 14th Grand-Slam title ties Federer with Pete Sampras for best all time, and his first French Open title makes Federer only the sixth male player to have ever achieved the career Grand-Slam in the history of tennis.

As Federer sank to the clay when soderling netted his match point return, there was a sense of relief amongst the jubilation. This is a man who carried the sting of four consecutive thrashings at the hands of Rafael Nadal with him to Paris this year. This is a man that never hesitated when given the chance to try again. When the opportunity presented himself, Federer searched inside himself for the perfect match to answer the call.

Predictably, he found it.

They used to say it with a lack of confidence. Now they are saying it with conviction: Roger Federer, THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Safina Upended by Cooler Kuznetsova

Unfortunately for Dinara Safina they don't play French Open finals on paper.  

Safina, the consensus favorite coming in, seemed to be bogged down by her own expectations en route to a heartbreaking 6-4, 6-2 loss at the hands of her compatriot, Svetlana Kuznetsova. 

The straight set win is the second Grand-Slam title for Kuznetsova, the first coming in the 2004 U.S. Open.  

For Safina, who remains without a Grand-Slam title, it is back to the drawing board.  She has now lost three Grand-Slam finals in the last year.  While she has been undeniably the most improved player on tour during that span, she proved today that she still possesses a level of belief that leaves her prone to doubt and anxiety when the pressure is on.  

During a topsy-turvy first set that featured five service breaks in ten games, Safina scored her second break of the set to get back on serve at 4-5.  But the opportunity was squandered as Kuznetsova responded with a quick break to steal the set.  

A frustrated Safina, casting angry glares at her coaching box more regularly as the match wore on, was able to stay on serve for nearly half of the second set, but break point chances were not forthcoming.

While the French crowd seemed to be in her corner, Safina seemed stuck in a mental rut - each strong point that she played was inevitably followed by a poor one, until finally, Kuznetsova grabbed the first break of the second set to go ahead 4-2.  

Instead of mounting a surge, only frustration seemed to mount for Safina.  

Angst and fear, rather than determination and belief, were the dominant characteristics drawn on Safina's face.  Her coach, Zeljko Krajan, credited with so much of Safina's improvement of late, seemed morose and in his box as well, the two of them poster children for how to improperly alleviate world-class pressure.  

Meanwhile, Kuznetsova, sensing the trepidation of her long time rival, and relishing in the slow playing conditions of the damp clay court, continued to attack. Additionally, she played extremely well defensively, limiting errors and forcing Safina to go for more with each successive shot. 

Finally, at Kuznetsova's first Championship point, Safina bounced a second-serve off the tape - as it landed harmlessly in the doubles alley for her seventh double fault of the match, it was all over but the crying.  

Meanwhile, Kuznetsova was stoic in her celebration, showing an impressive level of sportsmanship as she waited for Safina at net, then planted a few heartfelt kisses on her cheeks as they shook hands.  

As twenty-two-time Slam chamion Steffi Graf handed the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen to the victorious Kuznetsova while a visibly disappointed Safina stood nearby, Kuznetsova thanked the crowd and stated that she didn't expect to win this year.  She just wanted to show up and play her heart out, she said.  

Hopefully, Dinara was listening closely.  If she can find a way to win her mind-boggling struggle with expectations, anxiety, and doubt, it just might be her holding that trophy next year.  

Friday, June 5, 2009

Women's Final Preview: Safina Going For the One

Who:  No. 1 Dinara Safina vs. No. 7 Svetlana Kuznetsova
What:  French Open Final, 2009
Where: Court Philipe Chatrier at Roland Garros
When:  3 PM Paris time
* 2nd All-Russian final in history
* The 2nd French Open champion from Russia will be awarded the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen
* Safina is 8-5 all-time vs. Kuznetsova, but they have split the last two on clay this spring. 
* Safina defeated Kuznetsova in last year's French Open semi-finals, 6-3, 6-2, while Kuznetsova defeated Safina in the 2006 French Open Quarters, 7-6 (5), 6-0

Safina vs. Kuznetsova

If desire was a guarantee of Grand-Slam success, Dinara Safina wouldn't have anything to worry about. You'd be hard-pressed to find another woman on the tour that wants to win a Slam as bad as Safina - she's made it clear repeatedly that she covets that elusive Grand-Slam title more than anything else in the world.  

That sentiment is commendable in a day and age where many elite athletes are too busy racking up endorsements to really resonate with that bare-bones Rocky Balboa-type yearning for titles.  Safina is a throwback and her growing legion of fans is touched by her genuine persona.  

But desire doesn't hit clutch serves, or erase break points.  There is an inner calm that must be present in a champion, one that can transform a fire into a focus.  We already know Safina has the ability to win a Slam- but has she eliminated the doubt that can sometimes sabotage her big matches?  Tomorrow, the tennis world will find out.

Saturday afternoon's Woman's final will be an all-Russian affair for the first time since 2004.  And it promises to be a very entertaining match as well, judging from the type of tennis that each participant is playing thus far in the tournament.  

Svetlana Kuznetsova, a 2006 French Open finalist, and a semi-finalist last year, is fresh off of two very hard-fought three set wins.  The 5' 8" 160 lb. Russian has shown remarkable mental toughness in surviving emotional matches against No. 2 seed Serena Williams in the quarter finals, and upset minded Samantha Stosur in the semis.  

In both matches Kuznetsova relied on her experience and on her level-headedness, even after she blew opportunities to win each match in straight sets.  Rather than getting upset about letting Serena and Stosur back in the match, Kuznetsova stayed calm and scored huge victories after fighting through some very tight situations in the final sets of each match.  

Safina, on the other hand, has only been tested once at Roland Garros.  She was dominated for a set (and parts of another) by Feisty Belarusian Victoria Azarenka in the quarter finals, but the No. 1 ranked Russian passed that test with flying colors as she quickly found her focus and was able to take over and win convincingly.  

But even in her semi-final match with Dominika Cibulkova, Safina had her moments of shakiness.  She gifted the first two games to Cibulkova, and even though she was quick to win the next four, these lapses may be more devastating against an experienced opponent like Kuznetsova.  

Saturday's all-Russian tilt is a rubber match in two different ways:  

First it is the third of three matches on clay this spring between the two rivals.  Kuznetsova won their first meeting in Stuttgart 6-4, 6-3.  It was her first title since 2007 and the confidence gained from it has definitely boosted her play of late.  Safina took the pairs second match of the spring in the Rome finals, 6-3, 6-2.

The two have also met twice at Roland Garros, with Kuznetsova taking Safina in the 2006 quarters, and Safina avenging the loss in last years semis. 

If history is any indication, this could be a short match.  The last five matches played between Safina and Kuznetsova have been finished in straight sets, with Safina taking four of the five.  

Safina, the favorite at Roland Garros from day 1, has to remember that she must play like she has nothing to lose.  Grace under pressure, not nerves, should be the main factor in this sure-to be-exciting final. 

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Day 13: Soderling-Gonzalez Preview

Talk about your heavy metal thunder.  

In what is shaping up to be some very Swashbuckling clay-court tennis, dark horse Robin Soderling of Sweden is set to take on Chilean Fernando Gonzalez in tomorrow's first semi-final match on the red clay of Philippe Chatrier.  

The two bashers have met seven times previously, with Gonzalez winning the last four.  Additionally, Gonzalez has won both clay affairs against 6'4" Swede.  

But you can throw those stats out the window because they haven't met since 2007, and we all know that the current Robin Soderling didn't exist until last Sunday.  That was when the Swede orchestrated perhaps the biggest upset in the history of the French Open, stunning four-time defending champ Rafael Nadal in four dominant sets.  

Since then Soderling has gone on to roll over diminutive Russian Nikolay Davydenko in the quarters, while Gonzalez was victorious (also in upset fashion) over No. 3 seed Andy Murray in his quarter final match.  

What makes this match particularly compelling is that both players are sort of the antithesis of clay-court tennis, with each hitting heavy and relatively flat, i.e. flatter ground strokes than most typically effective or quintessential clay courters.  

But this years version of the clay, according to players and journalists, seems to be a tad faster than years past, lending a new found legitimacy to the style of play that both players employ.  

Because of their electric games, and the fact that both Soderling and Gonzalez are on improbable runs to the semis, this figures to be a memorable match, and should keep the demanding French fans on the edges of their seats.  

Soderlings previous best run at Roland Garros was 2008, where he lost to Frenchman Julian Benneteau in the round-of-32.  He has never been past the round-of-32 in any major until now. 

Gonzalez has twice been to the quarter finals at Roland Garros, including a loss last year to Roger Federer in which he took one set.  

Day 12: Relentless Russians Safina, Kuznetsova, Set for Rubber Match

The only player to defeat No. 1 Seed Dinara Safina on clay this season will get another chance to do it again on Saturday.  

Svetlana Kuznetsova survived a three set thriller against upset-minded Australian Samantha Stosur on Court Philippe Chatrier, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3.  

The two hour and twenty-five-minute pressure cooker is the second grueling three setter that Kuznetsova has found a way to win in two days.  Yesterday she outlasted Serena Williams in a two hour and forty-eight-minute battle of wills.  

Oddly, both matches followed similar patterns, with Kuznetsova taking the first set and going up a break in the second set.  But just like Serena Williams yesterday, Stosur fought valiantly to push Kuznetsova to a third set.  

After forcing a second set tiebreaker with a late break, Stosur quickly fell behind in the tiebreaker.  She double faulted to start the tiebreak, then lost the point of the match in a rapid volley duel at the net to fall behind 4-1.  But the feisty Australian refused to quit.  After hitting a daring inside out forehand to get to 5-3, she reeled off 4 more points consecutively to level the match at a set apiece.  

As the third set began it appeared that Stosur was the fresher of the two players.  But her first chance to take the upper hand was wasted, as Kuznetsova nullified a break point opportunity and went on to hold to stay on serve at 3-2.  

Kuznetsova, drawing from her wealth of experience in big matches, quickly earned two break points in the ensuing game.  Stosur's generosity in the form of an unforced error was accepted by the Russian, with the break giving her the advantage she would never relinquish.  

In the end Kuznetsova's experience in the late round of Slams appeared to outweigh her fatigue from having played so much grueling tennis in the last twenty-four hours.  She hit eleven winners in the final set, while Stosur only managed two.  

Safina Takes Care Of Business

In a match that featured some truly stellar baseline hitting, Dinara Safina overcame an early 2-0 deficit to dark horse Dominika Cibulkova to win easily, 6-3, 6-3.  

Safina, who is questing for the first Grand-Slam title of her career after losing in two of the last four Grand-Slam finals, appeared calm and purposeful, in spite of spotting the spritely Slovakian a break early in the first set.  

While Safina's seven double faults and 24 unforced errors left a little bit to be desired, the fact that she maintained her calm and was still able to win easily while not playing perfect tennis bodes well for her as she prepares to play her compatriot, Svetlana Kuznetsova in the French Open Women's final on Saturday.  

Even with the straight set victory, Safina sees room for improvement in her game.  "Obviously it gives you much more confidence when you know that you can do much better, even without playing your best," she said.  "It just shows that if I level up myself it can be much better."

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Federer: Why He Can't Miss

Some will say he backed into this one. Others will say that he's not even the best player of his generation, let alone all-time. But when the clay settles on the Terre Batteau this Sunday, Roger Federer might very well have said all he needs to say about the matter.

At that point it'll be up to us to decide. With 14 Grand-Slams and at least one on every surface, the choice won't be difficult. Perhaps one, maybe two men will have been as good as Federer, but none will have been better.

It is hard to imagine Federer, even as un-Federer-like as he has played in 2009, passing up on an opportunity such as this. This years French Open offers the lowest hanging fruit that the Swiss Maestro will ever see again. No ladder is necessary and the fruit is succulent on the vine.

The virtuosic Federer, whose elegant playing style and aesthetic grace is revered by so many adoring fans and peers, will be playing in his twentieth consecutive Grand-Slam semi-final on Friday - that's nineteen more than his opponent, Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro. When you do the math you almost have to laugh, thinking about just how difficult it's going to be for the Argentine to level the playing field against the vastly superior and more experienced Federer.

Just ask Gael Monfils, who was cleverly dismantled by Federer today on Philippe Chatrier (not physically, but tactically, and psychologically) how hard it can be.

Federer knows the territory, and he's run the gamut when it comes to Grand-Slam tennis. He's conquered the emotions, faced the pressure time and time again, and he's made the clutch shots on countless occasions. And to make matters worse for his relatively green opponents (he's 26-1 combined against the other three semi-finalists), he smells blood now. He's got a full tank of gas and the finish line is in sight.

You can rest assured that Federer will draw upon everything special left inside him and offer one one last sacrifice to the gods of tennis. He of the meticulously crafted ground strokes. He of the artful pinpoint serve. He of the fast-twitch overhead, and the lightning-quick volley reflex. Is there anything this man can't do? There was, until this week.

As human as Federer has appeared at times this year, he still capable of of the type of tennis that made him who he is, and he'll prove that this week. His wisdom won't let his hunger wane, now that the time is ripe. The opportunity is presenting itself and Federer is too intuitive not to capitalize. Now he can draw on his past experience and combine it with this new desire - the yearning for this one last golden opportunity to conquer the Parisian clay, and claim the missing trophy in his collection.

The chasm has opened wide in front of him. It's his to walk through. When the red dust settles on Sunday, the final chapter of the book of Federer will most likely have it's most moving verse.

It's hard to imagine it going any other way.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Day 10: Safina Finally Tested; Sharapova Finally Bested

Dinara Safina's biggest weakness now appears to be her biggest strength. 

The 23-year-old Russian was treated rudely in the first set by Victoria Azarenka today on Court Philippe Chatrier, as the feisty Belarusian served 93% for the first set and also scored three service breaks against the previously untouchable No. 1 seed.  

But Safina kept her calm and weathered the storm.  

In the second set Safina stabilized herself, something she may not have been able to do a year ago, and moved out to a 4-1 lead on Azarenka.  

But it wasn't over yet.  The fearless and dynamic Azarenka scored two service breaks to level the set at four games each.  Safina was only two games away from being bounced from the tournament that she had been dominating so thoroughly up until today.  But again, her sense of calm in these difficult situations provided her with the edge she would need to survive.  

While the 19-year-old Azarenka was routinely bouncing her racquet on the court (and hearing it from the ultra-contemptuous Parisian crowd), Safina was gathering herself together and devoting every ounce of her energy to staying focused and executing her game.  

In a match that was played at a very high level from the onset, the difference between winning and losing came down to maturity.  

Safina has worked hard in this last year to gain it, and she used it to her advantage today.  

Azarenka, meanwhile, clearly has a thing or two to learn from this match.  She looked to be her own worst enemy at times, berating herself instead of remaining calm.  

Safina secured her third break of the second set to go up 5-4, and even as she went down 0-30 while trying to serve it out, she gathered herself again, and closed the set out with four  straight points.  

In the third set Safina never trailed.  Azarenka hung close until the middle of the set but Safina was too strong, too determined, and too hungry.  

She closed it out going away, and has now reached her third straight Grand-Slam semi-final.  

In the 1-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory for Safina, she lost more than twice as many games (12) than she had lost in her four previous matches.   She will move forward to face Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova, buoyed by the belief that she can win the tough matches - if she can just stay focused.  

Sharapova Finally Sent Packing

Maria Sharapova's return to the court for this years French Open was definitely a shot in the arm for the woman's game.  After a ten month layoff and only three matches prior to last week, Sharapova stepped onto the clay displaying a fighters mentality.  

After three grueling matches, all of which went the distance, the Sharapova express was finally derailed today.  

Dominika Cibulkova may have benefitted from the fact that Sharapova had to be both mentally and physically fatigued, but the 5'3" fireplug played a brilliant match and deserves all the credit for her one-sided victory against the three-time Grand-Slam champion today.  

The recently turned 20 Cibulkova committed only 9 errors in her straight set destruction of Sharapova.  Furthermore, she showed wisdom beyond her years by keeping the pedal to the metal against Sharapova.  Cibulkova's body language and energy never faltered throughout the one hour and 15-minute affair, and when Sharapova finally awoke from her match-long slumber, there was too much ground for her to make up.  

The 6-0, 6-2 upset by Cibulkova was very nearly a double bagel - only Maria's determination kept it from being so.  

It was dicey at the conclusion with Sharapova storming back to win two games and threatening for more, and Cibulkova expressed her thoughts on the matter openly in her post-match press conference.  

"And the crowd, you know, I was a little bit surprised, because this never happened to me, that so many people were like - they were maybe not against me, but they wanted Maria to beat the beginning I got a little bit pissed.  You know, like why against me?  They don't like me or what's happening?  But then I realized I cannot think of these things."

Cibulkova will face Dinara Safina in the semi-finals on Thursday.  Cibulkova's previous best Grand-Slam result was her round-of-16 loss to Elena Dementieva in the 2009 Australian Open.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Nadal's Early Exit: Surviving the After-Shock, and Learning the Lesson

Rafael Nadal's unexpected departure from the Roland Garros draw yesterday says more about the human spirit than I first realized. At first, I didn't want to hear about it - like many fans of tennis I was truly stunned, and yes, for a brief period, heartbroken and confused.

In four years Nadal's legend has grown exponentially, as has his game. Just about to turn 23, the dominant Spaniard seemed to be almost invincible - there was a palpable belief that Nadal's chances of securing the coveted calendar year grand-slam were not slim at all. After all, Roland Garros was in the bag - nobody can beat Nadal on clay (or so we thought) - so he would be half way there with only two to go.

Just yesterday, before and during his match with husky Swede Robin Soderling, Nadal was referred to as "the greatest clay-court player of all time," by several commentators.

But today, Bjorn Borg's name is back in the conversation, right there next to Rafa's - together they are the only two players to win four consecutive French Open championships.

But when it comes to Nadal, we couldn't help but want more. That is why there is disappointment in virtually everyone I've spoken to about the match today. After all, in sports, we truly believe that records are made to be broken. It is one of the golden rules. In Nadal we had our hero - the player that showed us, as tennis players and fans, that it was possible - you could be invincible, you could rewrite the record books and turn the rest of the gifted field of professional tennis players into pawns in your own high-stakes game.

As the records piled up for Rafa (31-0 at Roland Garros, 81 consecutive wins on clay, never lost a best-of-five set match on clay) their was no doubt that in Nadal, we were witnessing the perfect combination of power, focus, and desire. Here was the model that we could all emulate, that we could embrace as the best that man can achieve in this fickle sport of ours.

There is a t-shirt that I've seen Dinara Safina wearing many times: It reads "impossible is nothing." Rafa was the realization of this ideal. He made the impossible look easy, and in our own ways, I think we've all gained by watching him do it.

But yesterday taught us all that sometimes impossible is impossible. If you asked me right now if I thought any one would ever win four consecutive French Opens again, I'd laugh in your face. Never!  Impossible!

But a strange feeling overtook me when I watched this match for the fourth time yesterday and tried again to fully comprehend its immensity. The feeling overtook me that Rafa's defeat might actually be better for tennis than Rafa's domination.

Robin Soderling may have played the best match in the history of the French Open yesterday. From a relatively obscure position in the tennis world, this man burst onto the scene and proved to us that you never know how much brilliance is inside you unless you strive to let it out.  If we can get more players on tour to feel and to play this way, our sport might be that much more compelling when it is all said and done.  

Whether it was for Sweden (deep down couldn't you tell that Soderling was fueled by a Nationalistic furor?) or just for the heck of it, what Soderling showed the rest of the tennis world is what they had failed to see for the better part of four years when it comes to Nadal: If you believe you can win, you can! Go out there and be an engine of belief and strive to execute your vision from the very first point, and you just may pull off the biggest upset in the history of a certain highly-regarded Grand-Slam.

So many players have been beaten before they have ever stepped on the court against Rafa, Roger Federer being probably the most obvious example of this, and each of those players has failed miserably against Nadal in Roland Garros.

But for some reason, Robin Soderling boldly said "enough is enough." You could see it in his eyes and you could see it in his mighty forehand.  He ran Rafa around the court in a way that none of us ever thought we'd witness. It was amazing. Breathtaking. Miraculous.  The perfect dream hashed out in reality. 

Soderling has shown us all a little something about courage and belief.  In doing so he has eased the heartbreak that we all feel when when one of our truly deserving heroes temporarily falls from grace.

Day 9: Fed Escapes; Monfils Elates

Roger Federer snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat against Tommy Haas today, rallying from two sets down to secure a spot in the quarter finals with a 6-7(4), 5-7, 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 triumph.

Federer has emerged as the most likely to benefit from the wide open Nadal-less draw.

But it looked as if he was going to be the next to crash and burn until he turned things around late in the match against the veteran Haas.

Alarmingly, Federer has yet to play his best tennis, and as he prepares to face surging Frenchman Gael Monfils, questions remain about his ability to capitalize on Rafa's early exit from the draw.

Still, the Swiss maestro remains upbeat about his chances. "It was a great battle for me, and I'm thrilled to be through and given another chance here."

Thrilled indeed, but is he ready to face a Monfils that is riding high on emotion and, as the last French man in the draw, will surely have the crowd in his corner?

Monfils ends the American Hope

Gael Monfils ran roughshod over Andy Roddick today, winning easily in straight sets and bringing the French faithful to a frenzied state as the sun went down over Court Suzanne Lenglen.

A beleaguered Roddick was initially frustrated by the remarkable play of Monfils, who was scattering winners all over the court. As the match progressed Roddick let the waning daylight make matters even worse, as his pleas for a suspension were ignored by tournament officials.

The temperamental American basically fell apart for the first half of the third set, letting his frustration with the situation mount, and letting the bombastic Monfils and his throngs of Parisian supporters get under his skin.

By the time Roddick found his calm, it was too late for him to get back in the match.

Monfils clinched this one-sided affair in the waning daylight, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3, and he will get a full day's rest in front of his upcoming battle with Roger Federer.