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 RF.com (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!

Phau falls, Clément awaits

It was Federer’s first clay-court win of the  season, and most would agree that it was later than expected.

Roger notched up a 6-3, 6-4 victory over the #140 ranked Bjorn Phau in the 2nd Round of the Estoril Open and thus has progressed to the Quarter Finals, three victories away from his first title since the Australian Open in January.

Incredible tennis wasn’t required and, admittedly, wasn’t on offer. The final winner/unforced error tally stood at 19/34 and 11/47 for Roger and Phau, respectively. Phau’s errors came in handy when Roger won five points in a row after being down 0-40 on his serve when serving for the first set; the final three being won as a result of errors from the opponent.

Yet as we know rustiness can be shaken off with continued play and such a small tournament is the best possible platform for it. Federer seemed aware from this when he said; “This win was not always beautiful but it doesn’t matter. I’m sure my best tennis is not far away.”

“There is always pressure in the first match, it doesn’t matter who it’s against. The first round in any event is never easy.”

Roger’s next opponent, the Frenchman Arnaud Clément, is likely to offer up more of a challenge. Just like Phau before him, he has enjoyed past victories – three of them, in fact – over the World #1, and just like Phau the last of them was over nine years ago; in the 3rd Round of the 2001 Australian Open as Clément enjoyed a run to the final.

Discounting the two good victories that led him to this point, the 32-year-old has lately been suffering some discouraging results, most recently a straight-set defeat against the World #781 Peter Torebko in the first round of Tunis. Yet Clement is no mental midget, and marked down his 300th career win by moving into the quarters (talking of career wins – Fed is inching closer to his 700th at 692). A former Top 10 player, he is also likely to draw encouragement from his past victories over Roger, however long ago they were, and the notion that his opponent is not yet hitting top form.

Looking ahead, another victory would take Federer into the semis, where he would face the winner of a match between Albert Montañés and Pablo Cuevas. Let’s hope over the next few days we’ll see more headlines, as there were today, proclaiming, ‘Federer finds his clay momentum.’ After the doom and gloom of the last couple of months, it certainly makes for a nice change!

Estoril Preview

Roger heads to the Estoril Open in Portugal next week, a tournament at which he has a perfect record having only played there (and won) once, in 2008.

On paper, going by the entry list, things look like they should be pretty simple. The #8 seed, Pablo Cuevas, has an ATP ranking of #56. The highest ranked player behind Federer is #15 and Indian Wells champion Ivan Ljubicic, returning from an injury. Joining him in the bottom half of the draw is #18 Gael Monfils, also returning from an injury. Following Roger’s recent early losses he will be looking to repair his form and get some wins under his belt and while this looks like the ideal low-key event to allow that to happen, victory is never a given.

The draw was released earlier this afternoon and after a first round bye, Fed will face the winner of a match between a qualifier and #140, Bjorn Phau. His head-to-head against Phau is tied at 1-1 apiece, with Phau having notched up a straight set victory over the 18-year-old Federer in Washington 1999. Roger got his revenge in 2007, dishing out a bagel against him in the R128 on his way to winning the Australian Open title. Phau’s most recent result was a 6-4, 6-3 quarterfinal loss to #70 Dudi Sela in the hard-court Athens challenger held earlier this month. All of Roger’s recent losses have been tortuous three-set affairs exhibiting, among other things, mental resilience from the opponent, and it’s undeniable that it seems unlikely that Phau would be the one to mimic them.

A second-round win would catapult Roger into the Quarter-finals where he would face one of Igor Kunitsyn, Arnaud Clement, Alejandro Falla, and #7 seed Juan Ignacio Chela. Assuming Chela makes his way out of that group (he has had decent recent results, most notably a 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 victory over Sam Querrey in the Houston final), Federer takes a 4-0 win/loss record into the hypothetical matchup. Discounting one 6-1, 3-6, 6-1 Federer victory in Miami 2003, Chela has never taken more than three games from him in a set – though he’s still capable of an upset, having in the past scored wins over then-#3 Andy Roddick, then-#3 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and Lleyton Hewitt.

In the semi-finals, the opponent would be the winner of the second quarter, headlined by #4 seed Albert Montanes and #8 seed Pablo Cuevas. Federer and Cuevas have never played; Cuevas’ favourite surface is clay and his most recent result was a R64 loss in Barcelona to the #112, Ivan Navarro, 6-2 6-4. Montanes has faced Roger as recently as the Australian Open, where he was beaten 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 in an unspectacular but routine match. The only set he’s taken was in a tiebreak at Roland Garros 08. Montanes is also a preferred claycourter, and having scored a recent easy win over Marin Cilic (though Cilic is, admittedly, not proficient on the dirt) he has the ability to make things difficult if Federer has an off day.

In the bottom half of the draw, the most obvious contenders to make the final seem to be Ivan Ljubicic and Gael Monfils, both returning to the tour following rib and hand injuries, respectively. #6 seed Guillermo Garcia-Lopez has been suffering a crisis of form recently, and #5 seed Florian Mayer’s most recent result was a quick loss to #183 Federico Del Bonis in the final of a Rome challenger. But back to Ljubicic and Monfils – Roger’s combined head-to-head against the pair is 17-3, with those three losses all coming against his good friend Ljubicic, the most recent of which was over seven years ago in Basel. Despite this, Ljubicic was obviously in good form in his Indian Wells victory last month, scoring wins over Djokovic and Nadal. It remains to be seen whether the injury will have had any effect on him and whether he can summon the clay-court form that took him to the the French Open semi-finals in 2006, and go deep in Estoril.

Federer and Monfils last met in the quarters of Roland Garros 09, when Federer defeated him 7-6(6), 6-2, 6-4 in one of the more stress-free matches he played during that tournament. Monfils, like Montanes, won his only set against Federer at Roland Garros 2008, a semi-final match that finished with a 6-2, 5-7, 6-3, 7-5 scoreline and was the Frenchman’s best performance in a slam to date. Despite having proficiency on all surfaces, Monfils has perhaps been most successful on clay, and could certainly be a challenge to a Federer not totally on his game.

Whatever happens, it’s always nice to see Roger playing again, and this tournament should give us a better idea of what sort of results to hope for as we head into two tournaments where he is the defending champion – Madrid, and after that the second slam of the year, Roland Garros.