This time, they were tears of joy. Roger Federer fell to his knees and wept on the red clay of Paris, exorcising the demons of French Opens past and reintroducing tennis to its most accomplished champion.
In dispatching an inspired Robin Soderling on Sunday in the final at Roland Garros, Federer won the one major title he lacked and with a record-tying 14th Grand Slam win rounded out a resume that now can be viewed as the most complete in history.
Some will argue that Federer must beat Rafael Nadal at the French Open to validate this latest win. After all, it was the pesky Spaniard who had dismissed Federer in each of the previous four years at Roland Garros. And it was Nadal who served tear-inducing losses to Federer at the Australian Open in February and at Wimbledon last July.
But such statements are plainly unfair; a man can beat only those he plays. Moreover, it is worth noting that Nadal’s absence in this final came as a result of an early-round defeat to a lesser opponent, the kind of defeat that Federer has consistently managed to avoid.
There are several men who can stake a claim as the best tennis player of all time, but none has Federer’s credentials. Pete Sampras was the first to 14 major titles but only made it to the semifinals of the French. Bjorn Borg, who won nearly half of the Grand Slam tournaments he played, never won the U.S. Open and avoided playing Down Under. Ivan Lendl appeared in 19 Grand Slam finals, winning eight, but never emerged triumphant at Wimbledon.
No other men’s player in history has shown Federer’s level of consistency. He has reeled off an unprecedented six-year stretch of dominance, appearing in 15 out of the last 16 Grand Slam finals and reaching the semifinals in 20 consecutive major tournaments. His five-set wins over Tommy Haas and Juan Martin del Potro over the past two weeks showed that Federer can be shaken but is rarely vanquished by a lesser opponent.
Federer’s French Open win is illustrative of how the path of history can shift like a match’s momentum. After falling to Nadal in Melbourne, fans wondered whether the Swiss player had become too slow and too psyched out to win another Grand Slam title. Now, with his confidence restored and Nadal’s knees griping, Federer likely will enter Wimbledon as the favorite with a chance of regaining the No. 1 ranking not out of the question.
Recent criticism of Federer belied the fact he still was easily the second-best player in the world and that no player - not even Nadal - was invincible. Nadal’s exit in Paris was surprising, but it should stun no one that Federer was able to take advantage of his rival’s early exit to win the tournament.
Federer’s legacy is now established, but he can still build on it. Two more Wimbledon titles would tie Sampras’ record of seven. Two more U.S. Open titles also would tie a record. Another win in Paris would make him the only player other than Rod Laver to win each major twice.
Though a new wife and child may change his priorities, he is just 27 - still a little more than three years younger than Sampras was when he won his final tile. Perhaps most importantly, he has shown a penchant for avoiding injury.
Nadal, of course, always stands as an obstacle. And there are some in tennis who say they will reserve judgment on Federer’s legacy until both men are finished playing. At the moment, Federer has eight more major titles than Nadal, but he is also five years older. If Nadal’s health holds up - not a sure thing, given his guts-out style of play - he could be the next to challenge the all-time record for Grand Slams.
Until then, however, it is Federer who reigns supreme in tennis history.