As Roger Federer celebrated winning the Madrid Open on Sunday, not only had he overtaken Rafael Nadal to claim the number two spot in the ATP rankings, but the Swiss great also made a statement that he was more than just an afterthought in the running to win the French Open later this month.
Roger Federer now holds the record for most career Grand Slam victories.
Both Nadal and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic crashed out early in the ATP Masters 1000 event, amidst fervent complaints over the now infamous blue clay surface deployed in the Spanish capital. Federer, meanwhile sat about his task with minimal fuss, admitting that the court was a little slippy, but that "Our job each day is to adapt to the conditions that we face."
And after surviving a massive scare in his first match against star-in-the-making Milos Raonic, Federer advanced to the final by winning his next three matches in straight sets. In the final, yesterday, he showed his renowned calm under pressure to recover from the loss of the first set, to beat Tomas Berdych 3-6, 7-5, 7-5.
The win secured Federer's 20th ATP Masters 1000 crown, equaling Nadal's record. It also reinforced the belief that the former world No. 1 is on level footing with both Djokovic and Nadal when it comes to competing for tennis' major titles.
The feat of returning to the No. 2 spot for the first time since March 2011 should not be underestimated, built as it is on an incredible 45-3 match record since last year's US Open.
But while Federer should now be considered a strong contender for Wimbledon in June, there will still be question marks over whether the 30-year-old is capable of adding to his one French Open crown later this month.
Much of the talk on the circuit has been of whether Djokovic is capable of usurping Nadal to become the king on clay as he has done on every other surface in the past 18 months. But, after winning one of the main warm-up events for Roland Garros, Federer will rightly believe that he deserves to be firmly in the conversation of perspective champions.
Clay has been considered Federer's weakest surface throughout his career, an incredible thing to say given that he has not only won the French Open, but also appeared in the final on four further occasions.
Indeed, since 2004, only Nadal and Robin Soderling have defeated Federer on the hallowed dirt in the French capital.
But, while there were mitigating circumstances involved in his Madrid exit to Fernando Verdasco, Nadal arguably no longer possesses the same invincibility on clay that once saw him almost have one set in the bag before even stepping out on the court.
If Federer is to ever beat his great rival at Roland Garros, then 2012 could be the year.
And what of Novak Djokovic? The Serbian still holds three of the four grand slams but has yet to win a title on clay this year after being well beaten by Nadal in the final of Monte Carlo prior to his quarter-final defeat to fellow-countryman Janko Tipsarevic last week..
Djokovic has not had a bad year by any means and is rightfully ranked as the best player in the world, but isn't in the same unrelenting form with which he entered the French Open a year ago. And, of course, it was in 2011's second grand slam that Federer ended Djokovic's unbeaten start to the year in the semi-finals.
Federer is unlikely to be unduly daunted by the prospect of facing the 24-year-old in the semi-finals or final this time around. Although, it would undeniably aid Federer's cause if he avoids having to play both Nadal and Djokovic back-to-back, likely leaving the two to slog it out in the semi-finals.
He won't be favorite, but Federer will be increasingly confident that he can disrupt the Djokovic-Nadal narrative in Paris and once again hoist the Coupe des Mousquetaires. A feat that just might rank as the proudest of his glittering career.
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