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French a major obstacle for Federer

PARIS -- For all of Roger Federer's titles at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open -- and there are 10 and counting -- his career very well may be defined eventually by how he fared at the French Open.

Federer is well aware of that. It's why he tweaked his schedule and his practice routine in the months before heading to Paris. It's why he ratcheted up his commitment to fitness training, knowing what a grind playing on red clay can be.

"There's more focus on the French Open, and it would be just so nice to win it," Federer said, "so I'm going to give myself the best possible chance."

He also knows that his success elsewhere might in a way be a result of his lack of success in the past at Roland Garros, where the year's second Grand Slam tournament begins today. Pretty much everyone expects to see Federer face two-time defending champion Rafael Nadal in the men's final, just like last year.

And just like last year, Federer heads to the French Open hoping to complete a career Grand Slam and a non-calendar Grand Slam.

"I've been working a long time for the French Open goal," he said, "trying to get ready, being in the best physical shape, and, you know, mentally ready."

Turn back the calendar to May 26, 2003, when Federer was an up-and-comer at the French Open. He was 21, seeded fifth, and word was spreading that he was a talented, all-court player who could challenge consistently for major titles.

"I remember going into the tournament feeling so confident," Federer said, "going like, 'I could win this thing. I'm playing so well at the moment.' "

What happened? He fell in straight sets in the first round to Luis Horna, a Peruvian ranked 88th.

"I lost the first set and thought, 'There's no chance I'm coming back in this match. And if I do, with seven matches to play, there's no way I'm going to win the French Open.' All of a sudden, within 45 minutes, my whole dreams were shattered," Federer recalled.

It was a turning point.

"It was just one of those moments when I finally realized I have to still change a few things," Federer continued.

Since that disappointment in 2003, Federer has won 10 of the past 15 majors -- going 93-5 in those matches.

If he can win the French Open, it would be his fourth consecutive major championship, something only Don Budge in 1938 and Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969 have accomplished (although they did it within a calendar year). It also would make Federer the sixth man to win each of tennis's top tournaments at least once. And it would put him on track for a true Grand Slam, given that he's won Wimbledon the past four years and the US Open the past three.

By reaching the June 10 final, Federer would play in his eighth major title match in a row, something no man has done. Not Laver. Not Pete Sampras. Not Bjorn Borg.

As Andre Agassi put it: "We're watching history in the making."

And yet, because Federer's attacking flair is somewhat dulled by the slowness of the clay, he's had trouble at Roland Garros.

"To me, if he's going to win the French, it's going to have to be real soon -- this year, next year," said John McEnroe, whose collection of seven major titles doesn't include the French Open. "He's not a natural clay-court player. He's an all-around player. So it's somewhere where I think there's a sense of urgency."

Just when Federer was beginning to look a tad vulnerable -- a four-tournament title drought, a loss to 53d-ranked Filippo Volandri, a split from part-time coach Tony Roche -- he went out and beat Nadal at the Hamburg Masters this month.

Attacking more than usual on clay, Federer picked up his first victory in six tries against Nadal on the surface.

"So the confidence is back," Federer said, "and that, before a Grand Slam, is key."

That setback also ended Nadal's 81-match winning streak on clay, the longest on any surface.

"I'm playing my best tennis, better than ever," Nadal said, "so I can't be sad because I lost one match to the best."

Nadal will be trying to make history, too. Only one man has won at least three straight French Open titles: Borg in 1978-81.

In the women's draw, Justine Henin also is aiming for a third consecutive championship. She has to be considered the favorite, and it's tough to figure out who will challenge her.

Kim Clijsters retired, Lindsay Davenport is pregnant, and Martina Hingis withdrew with a bad hip. Even players planning to compete have been nursing injuries, including Maria Sharapova (shoulder) and Nicole Vaidisova (wrist). Serena Williams proved at the Australian Open that she can't ever be counted out, but both she and older sister Venus recently lost early at tuneup tournaments.

Svetlana Kuznetsova, last year's runner-up, and Jelena Jankovic, who won the Italian Open on clay, could make deep runs -- or disappear before the second week.

"It's a very nice feeling to be back on this clay that I love so much," Henin said. "I don't have anything to prove to anyone."