Estoril: The Home Straight

It seems a bit generous to call reaching the semis of Estoril reaching the ‘home straight,’ but despite having only two matches down, with two to go that’s exactly what it is.

Roger defeated the Frenchman Arnaud Clément 7-6(7), 6-2 to advance to the semis. The ATP covered his progression as the continuation of his “quest for perfection,” taking a leaf out of the book of René Stauffer, and barring any upsets, he will probably be lifting the trophy on Sunday.

But back to yesterday’s match. Judging by the first set, it seemed clear that the incredible tennis that won Roger his only title this year, the Australian Open, was still AWOL. Federer “got off to a bad start in the first game, falling to 0-30 then he played a great passing shot,” to get broken to love and then fall into an immediate 2-0 hole.

Yet unlike in the third sets of his recent losses to Berdych and Gulbis, once Roger recovered the break he didn’t go on to lose the set anyway, taking the tiebreak 9-7 after saving one set point.

The second set was much smoother sailing and Federer broke immediately, making use of the drop shots that won him the French Open to take it 6-2 without any major hiccoughs. All in all it seemed a more encouraging performance than against Phau; his first serve percentage, for example, was up from 48 to 60%. His overall verdict was similar to that of the Phau match; “I didn’t play beautiful tennis. I had to play safe, which isn’t something I’m used to doing. I have always struggled against him and today you could see that.”

Next up in the semi-finals is the defending champion, Spain’s Albert Montañés, a consistent player who has most notably been ranked within the Top 100 for all but 20 weeks since 2001. Montañés has played well this week, dropping a mere ten games, and his clay-court prowess makes him a greater threat here than elsewhere on the tour. Federer and Montañés’ last claycourt match was at the 2008 French Open, where Montañés took the first set of a rain-delayed encounter in a tiebreak. As discussed in my tournament preview, he will have the ability to make things difficult, especially if Federer has an off patch like at the start of his match against Clément, and is a tougher opponent than both Clément and Phau, but, lacking in any major weapons, it remains to be seen whether he can pull off the upset.

And what of Federer’s form more generally? Montañés will have even less of a chance if we start to see some sustained improvement from the start of the week. By all accounts he has been practicing extremely well – Peter Bodo reports he was “conspicuously sharp, focused, and in-form” during a three-hour Sunday practice with Sam Querrey, and the fan reports from (thanks for those guys!) have been even more gushing than usual.

One of the many things Roger has taught us is that he can pace himself and peak at just the right time. Hopefully that’s what we’ll begin to see as we head into two tournaments full of good memories from 2009; Madrid and Roland Garros.

I’ll be doing a preview of Madrid when the draw is out later today. Until then!

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