HOWARD FENDRICH AP Tennis Writer PARIS (AP)
Oh, how Roger Federer savored every moment with his first French Open trophy. He raised it overhead. He cradled it in the crook of his elbow. He closed his eyes and kissed it. He examined the names of other champions etched on its base. Even in a downpour on Court Philippe Chatrier, as heavy, gray clouds blocked any shred of sunlight Sunday, that silver trophy sure seemed to glisten. Finally, the lone major championship that had eluded Federer was his. With his latest masterful performance, Federer tied Pete Sampras' record of 14 major singles titles and became the sixth man to complete a career Grand Slam. History was at stake, and Federer was at his best, completely outplaying No. 23-seeded Robin Soderling of Sweden en route to a 6-1, 7-6 (1), 6-4 victory in a French Open final that lacked suspense but not significance. "Maybe my greatest victory or certainly the one that takes the most pressure off my shoulders," Federer said in French, moments after dropping to his knees, caking them with clay, as his 127 mph service winner ended the match. "I think that now, and until the end of my career, I can really play with my mind at peace and no longer hear that I've never won at Roland Garros." Federer came heartbreakingly close in the past, losing the previous three French Open finals, so there certainly was something poetic about his tying Sampras' Grand Slam mark at this particular tournament, on this particular court. "Now that he's won in Paris, I think it just more solidifies his place in history as the greatest player that played the game," Sampras told The Associated Press. "If there's anyone that deserves it, it's Roger," Sampras said. "He's come so close lost to one guy who's going to go down as probably the greatest clay-courter of all time." That would be Rafael Nadal, the man who beat Federer at Roland Garros in the 2006-08 finals and the 2005 semifinals, too. But Nadal's 31-match French Open winning streak ended this year with a fourth-round loss to the hard-hitting Soderling. "I knew the day Rafa won't be in the finals, I will be there, and I will win. I always knew that, and I believed in it. That's exactly what happened," the second-seeded Federer said. "It's funny. I didn't hope for it. But I believed in it." Only 7-13 against Nadal, Federer entered Sunday 9-0 against Soderling and, other than the threat of postponement because of rain, there was never any doubt that would become 10-0 by day's end. That's because Federer showed off the athleticism and artistry that carried him to five championships at Wimbledon, the last five at the U.S. Open and three at the Australian Open. Federer hit more aces than Soderling, 16-2. He broke Soderling four times. He won 40 of the first 47 points on his serve. He won five points with delicate drop shots. Federer was outstanding at the start, taking a 4-0 lead, and close to perfect in the tiebreaker. That was Soderling's chance to get into the match, but Federer wouldn't allow it: The Swiss star served four points and all four were aces, ranging from 118 mph to 132 mph. Federer called it "one of the greatest tiebreakers in my career." Soderling never really stood a chance, not against Federer, not on this day, not on this stage. "You really gave me a lesson in how to play tennis," Soderling told Federer. This was Federer's 19th Grand Slam final, equaling Ivan Lendl's record, and Soderling's first. Soderling not only shocked Nadal and the entire tennis world but also beat No. 10 Nikolay Davydenko, No. 12 Fernando Gonzalez and No. 14 David Ferrer. "Every time I played Roger, after the match, I always said, 'I played so bad today.' Now I learned that it's not that I played bad," Soderling said. "He makes me play bad." For only two moments was Federer the least bit shaken: As the last few points were played victory tantalizingly close and during a bizarre and worrisome episode when a man jumped over the photographer's pit and ran on the court. It happened after the first point at 2-1 in the second set, and the intruder went right up to Federer and tried to put a red hat on him. Federer brushed the man aside before security guards even got close enough to intervene. After hopping the net, the man was tackled and jailed for questioning. "A touch scary," Federer said, lamenting he didn't ask for a chance to gather himself. "It definitely felt uncomfortable once he came close to me. Looking back, it definitely threw me out of my rhythm a little bit." Federer looked up at his pregnant wife, Mirka, and adjusted his headband, but soon was playing again. He lost that game at love, then quickly settled back into a groove. Until, that is, the countdown to a championship had gone from matches to sets to games to points. Waiting in his changeover chair at 5-4 in the third set, Federer shook his legs to stay loose and took a few sips of water, then wiped his face with a towel. Stepping back on court to try to serve out the match, he was churning inside. "You can imagine how difficult that game was," Federer said. "It was almost unplayable for me." He put a forehand into the net. He sailed a backhand long. He shanked a swinging forehand volley 3 feet beyond the baseline to give Soderling a break point. "My mind was always wondering, 'What if? What if I win this tournament?'" Federer said. He gathered himself, of course, and won the next three points the last three points of a tournament that meant so much to Federer. For the next 40 minutes, he stayed on that court, relishing it instead of dreading it. Federer accepted the trophy from Andre Agassi, whose 1999 French Open title made him the last man with a full set of Grand Slam trophies. "I'm so happy for you, man," Agassi told Federer. Later, Agassi said: "Roger has earned his place, his rightful place, in the game, and winning here was just something that would have been a bit of a crime if he never did." Federer won three major titles each in 2004, 2006 and 2007, but 2008 was a struggle by his and only his lofty standards. Slowed by mononucleosis, he lost in last year's Australian Open semifinals the only one of the past 16 Grand Slam tournaments at which Federer didn't reach the final. He absorbed the most lopsided Grand Slam loss of his career in the 2008 French Open final against Nadal, then lost to Nadal again in the Wimbledon final, 9-7 in the fifth set. He also lost the No. 1 ranking to Nadal, before winning the U.S. Open in September. Then came another five-set setback against Nadal in this year's Australian Open final, and Federer's anguish was there for the world to see when he wept during the postmatch ceremony. Four months later, on Sunday, Federer cried on court again. When the Swiss national anthem played for the first time after a French Open men's fi- nal, tears rolled down Federer's cheeks, that silver trophy nestled in his arms.