Rallying

Roger entered his first three-match winning streak since the Australian Open when he defeated Ernests Gulbis 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 to move into the semi-finals of the 2010 Mutua Madrileña Madrid Open.

It may have been a struggle but this match, along with Federer’s 6-3, 6-1 drubbing of countryman Stanislas Wawrinka in the third round, offered up encouraging evidence that the ‘slump’ he had entered over the last few months was not going to end up becoming worryingly permanent, in differing ways.

Firstly, the match against Wawrinka. Stan looked like the smart bet to upset Federer at the start of the tournament, given the World #1’s recent record against Top 40 players – but he ended up not being much of an obstacle at all after breaking in the first game; Roger later returned the favor a grand total of five times. Fed’s W/UE stats stood at 23/11 compared to the not-terrible (given the scoreline) 18/24 made by Wawrinka.

Yet for some – looking at you, Peter Bodo – this was apparently not enough. The good old editor of good old Tennis Magazine suggested in his write-up of the match that the Swiss #2 wasn’t “wanting to beat Federer with the degree of unfettered determination and aggression called for by that difficult job,” and that he (Bodo) required Federer to “have to scratch and claw against a quality opponent,” before the results of the past few months could be forgotten, going into Paris.

Bodo must have been very satisfied with yesterday’s match against Gulbis, then. Rallying from a set and a break down, Roger won six games on the trot to take the second set against the talented Latvian, before breaking at his second opportunity in the third and surviving some tight service games to emerge as the winner. The fact that he managed to fight back from such a deficit was precisely what made his performance in this match – Gulbis has been uncharacteristically excellent lately, his serve is probably one of the best in the game; he took the first set our of sheer brilliance of play, not because Roger was under-performing.

Yet with increased intensity and fierce little ‘Come on!’ barks reminiscent of the 2008 US Open, Roger tightened his screws and brought his A game to the table to snatch the win. Perhaps the memory of the turnaround achieved here in 2009 spurred him on; it’s no doubt that his improving performance in Madrid has been healthy, and the man himself seems to agree; “In all the matches I’ve hit the ball cleanly, serving well. There are no complaints from my side. Even the set I lost today was good.”

The win itself, like seemingly everything good Federer does these days, brought him a little closer to a couple of records. Every point he amasses between now and the 14th of June brings him that little bit closer to surpassing Pete Sampras’ record of total weeks at #1. Also, he now has 208 ATP Masters match wins, one away from all-time record holder Agassi at 209, and if he were to win the title would equal the record for career ATP Masters titles at 17 to share it with Agassi again, and Rafa Nadal, the player who once again awaits in the final should Federer defeat David Ferrer this evening.

Getting to the final is plainly no guarantee. Ferrer reached the semi-final courtesy of a long 7-5, 6-3 match against Andy Murray that finished at 1am local time, and leads the tour on clay this season, with a 27-4 win-loss record. In all the 21 sets across 9 matches they have played against each other, Ferrer has claimed two, one on clay, and the other when they last met on the hard courts of 2009’s Cincinnati, where the Spaniard was the only player in the tournament to steal a set from the Swiss on his way to the title in a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 match.

Taking the head-to-head into account, this looks like a match Federer should be winning. He sounded confident in his press room quotes, and, going by the stereotype, his game is a bad match-up against Ferrer’s, who doesn’t have a particular stand out weapon nor plays with enough variety to trouble the Swiss on a normal day, in theory. But the message we, as tennis fans, have had beaten into us over the last 12 months is still worth remembering – nothing is ever guaranteed.

But if – yes, if – everything goes according to plan, this time tomorrow we will be sitting down to enjoy the latest episode in the classic modern rivalry of men’s tennis, with a Federer/Nadal final. Sit tight, folks. Let’s not jinx it.

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