There may be no grass-court equivalent to the title "King of Clay," but Roger Federer sure is acting as if he wishes there were. On Sunday, he bagged his eighth title on the grass in the northern German town of Halle, bringing his ATP tour-leading collection of titles won on turf to 15. Federer reminded us that while he may be 33, with Wimbledon looming, there's plenty of snap in his serve and sting left in his volley.
Halle has been very good to Federer, but you could just as easily have put it the other way around. Sure, Federer can buy many pairs of shoes, even in multiples of fours for his twins, with the $1.6 million in prize money that he has carried off from Halle over the years. But when the tournament was created in 1993, many skeptics wondered how long an ATP lower-level grass event held in frequently cool, damp northern Germany could possibly survive.
Then along came Federer, just seven years later, to begin a career-long association with the event. A decade and a half later, Federer and Halle are synonymous in the same way that Rafael Nadal is with three clay-court events, at Roland Garros (nine titles) and Monte Carlo and Barcelona (eight titles). Federer's support of the event has helped Halle increase its status to an ATP 500-level designation, which started this year -- an important step in the current rehabilitation of the grass-court circuit leading to Wimbledon.
That brings us back to the main point, which is grass-court tennis and the prep work players must undertake for Wimbledon after all those weeks spent grinding, grunting and sliding on clay. Federer showed throughout his week in Halle that he's not just gliding by on the wings of his genius. He knows things about the grass that some of his rivals, even the enormously successful ones, may not.
Federer understands how much more a single misconceived -- or brilliant -- shot can mean on grass than on other surfaces. Even on today's "slower" grass, entire sets can sometimes be decided by the outcome of two or three points that may occur at 15-all or 1-all at deuce, rather than at more dramatic junctures. As Federer told reporters after making relatively short work of Andreas Seppi in the final, 7-6 (1), 6-4:
"I think one big secret on grass is when to hit which shot and playing the score the right way," the Swiss said. "You might be playing perfect but then in one moment you take a bad decision and grass makes you pay for it all."
Seppi, you may remember, recorded a stunning upset of No. 2 seed Federer at the Australian Open to start the Grand Slam year in January. He wasn't the only notable landmine placed in Federer's path in Halle. In the first round, Federer locked up with another former Halle champ, Philipp Kohlschreiber -- a tricky player who also happens to be a German. That one went the distance. The 2011 champ stretched Federer to 7-6 in the third before yielding.
When the smoke cleared last week, Federer was especially pleased that he was 6-0 in the tiebreakers that often have such a significant impact on how grass-court matches turn out. Nobody is calling him the "King of Grass" even though he has won more grass-court titles than any of his rivals, including seven at Wimbledon. That's OK. Federer has the right to claim the crown where it really counts as Wimbledon approaches, in his own mind.