Federer beats Benneteau – the view from Centre Court

When Federer went down two sets to love and trudged back to his seat with a blank expression on his face, I admit that I began to think about what I would do after he lost this match. When a guy is reading your serve as well as Benneteau was, and seemed to be beating you from the baseline as frequently as Benneteau managed, it seems like there’s very little you can do.

Roger had broken early in the second and seemed to be steadying the ship, but as we all know, Julien broke back, and losing a marathon twelfth game to force a tiebreak meant that, according to Roger, he “just kind of felt that the breaker was going to be a rough one” for him. It was. He lost it 7-3, and I put my head in my hands. The French fans in the row in front of me who had been good-naturedly cheering for their countryman up until the breaker were talking uncertainly, no longer so happy with the result.

So, the mood was grim, but the match was not yet over. I thought back over the preceding two sets, and managed to pick out one particular moment that made me smile – Roger, struggling to break for the set, had shouted “ALLEZ!” as he earned an opportunity.

I’ve seen him play five matches live before, and all of them were relatively easy. The most nerve-wracking moment I’d experienced was probably one 7-5 second set he won against David Ferrer at the World Tour Finals a couple of years ago, and the nerves of that moment were partly mixed in with my own personal need to see him win in time for me to catch the last train home. I’d never seen a dogfight from anywhere except for my sofa in front of the television. Hearing him yell to himself in encouragement from just a few metres away was, I have to admit, amazing. Even if he was going to lose in three straight sets, I told myself, he was still here, still fighting, still willing himself forwards, still the irrepressible champion I fell in love with all those years ago.

The Centre Court crowd were fully behind him now. Roger said afterwards, “I guess when I sat down, I said, All right, here we go now.  Match has only just started.”

*

What’s it like getting to see Roger on Centre Court? I had travelled to London and camped out since Thursday morning for a chance to see him play. I had followed the preceding day’s upsets on a whining dynamo radio in the tent; the roars of Centre Court could be heard all the way from the campsite about a kilometre down the road from the grounds, and all evening people in nearby tents could be heard groaning and cheering as one of the most shocking days in Wimbledon history came to a close. I was so excited about seeing Roger the next day, but never would I expect that his match would come anywhere close to the spectacle of the preceding day’s play.

We were woken at 5am by the stewards, packed up our kit, and at around 7am started shuffling lazily down Church Road until, after a bit of waiting around and reading the paper, we were finally admitted at around 9:30am. Wimbledon is amazing. This was my fifth visit, but the beauty of camping means you get the best seats in the house as a reward for your dedication. My sister and I were 6 rows behind the players. At other tournaments these are the sorts of seats reserved for corporate visitors who spend half the match time sipping champagne while the real fans crane their necks to see the distant figures of the players a long way below, but not at Wimbledon.

I spent a bit of time, before play began on Centre, near Aorangi Park, where the players practice. I’d never got autographs anywhere before, having never had the chance, so props again to Wimbledon for being fan-friendly! I was lucky enough to see the Williams sisters, Murray, Tsonga, Kvitova, Roddick, the Bryans, Ferrer and others hurrying past to practice. A particular highlight was when David Goffin came by, and despite seeming a little shy and unused to the attention, kindly signed for anyone who asked him to. At one point multiple camera crews descended, shouting excitedly, and round the corner came none other than Lukas Rosol, commanding more attention than all the top players combined; he too kindly took the time to sign for a few fans.

Anyway, before long 1pm rolled around and I was able to watch two very enjoyable matches, Djokovic-Stepanek and Watson-Radwanska. With those over and Centre almost full, at 5:35pm there was a roar from the southerly members of the crowd as first Julien, then Roger, walked onto the green grass as we provided them with a respectful standing ovation.

I apologise for the inadequacy of my camera as I attempt to relay what it was like, but it was really, truly incredible being there and seeing it all. A shot that would look like a shallow, limp forehand on television would seem to whiz past with incredible power and accuracy when you’re just a few metres away. After the match, when I returned home many, many, hours later and read a few post-match reports in a semi-dazed state, I was faintly bemused to see Roger’s start being described as slow and lazy. Sure, there were unforced errors, but nothing too bad. When you’re there, in close proximity to every shot Julien hit with depth and power and accuracy, there was nothing to be done except applaud his brilliance. You can see players at tennis clubs and people playing for fun, but they’re light years below the pros. For these two, the speed of their forehands and backhands was incredible, the volleys were unbelievable, the footwork was beautiful. That was just the warmup.

I don’t think anyone was really expecting a particularly difficult match. Roger was the 1-50 favourite before the match; he’d lost a mere 9 games in his previous six sets, his joint lowest ever in the first two rounds of Wimbledon, and most were probably expecting similarly easy progress. No one seemed to see the fact that Benneteau had beaten Roger the last time they had played, in the Paris Masters 2009 on indoor hardcourt as being particularly relevant. I overheard a conversation between the guys behind me; “I hope Fed wins 6-0, 6-0, 6-0.” “But then we’ll only be able to see him for, like, an hour!” “Well, then I hope he wins 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 and the last game goes to deuce about fifty times.”

It was when things got to *4-4 that things got tight. Federer hadn’t broken in the previous game, despite being two points from it. One French fan in front of me had been squeaking “Allezzzz!” in a high pitched voice (for Benneteau) far more often than most would have expected. Four games was the most anyone had taken from Federer in a set so far. Yet Benneteau earned the break, with an impossible backhand up the line, a fantastic return… and then a Federer backhand thwacked into the net. The crowd let out a groan of disappointment at the error, but the set was not yet over. The players zipped back and forth across the baseline in a stunning rally as Benneteau served at 15-0, before his brilliantly angled crosscourt forehand caught the line and Roger could not find an answer. A Federer return sailed wide and Benneteau held. 6-4. He hadn’t flinched. Neither had Rosol.

The members of the crowd who had wanted a longer match now had what they had desired. One of the guys who had been hoping for a 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 win had changed his mind. “I just hope it goes five,” he said, nodding enthusiastically. Having, like most Fed fans, suffered through enough 5 set marathons from in front of the television to last me a lifetime, I was fervently hoping for a win in four. It somehow seems that, these days, it’s so much harder to win in four than to end up grappling for dominance over five sets. Benneteau believed, and maybe Fed was unsure of himself in ways he hasn’t been in the past; he described experiencing the first two sets in a kind of “fog” to McEnroe afterwards. However, at the start of the second, he did what we had been hoping and expecting he would do; he broke.

It was at this point that a few people near me let out a sigh of relief, raised their eyebrows at one another as if to say “disaster averted, then?” But it wasn’t to be, and things felt distressingly familiar as he struggled and ultimately couldn’t hold serve. It’s at these moments when you start bargaining; at least he was serving first. 2-1* is better than 1-1*. But the set trundled on. Benneteau’s service game at 4-3* went to deuce, and there was a murmur of anticipation from the crowd; is this where he breaks? It wasn’t. Roger served at *4-4, an incredible return from Julien caught the line, and he was break point down. This was really danger time now. The voices of the crowd rose and some shouted, urging him to save it. Nearby Federer supporters couldn’t look away; we sat forward, and yelled jubilantly as he managed it, and again when he managed to hold for 5-4. It was never comfortable, though. When Roger looked like holding to love for 6-5, Benneteau played an incredible point to make it 40-15. He didn’t break, of course, but mentally it made the difference. He wasn’t going to bow under pressure.

The 6-5* game was torturous and only made better by the knowledge that he could at least take it in a tiebreak if he lost it. Yes; you know you’re in trouble when the potential of a tiebreak is reassuring. There was nothing to be done as Julien’s audacious winners saved every set point, except marvel at the fact that Roger was never obviously frustrated, and was as ready to fight as we were ready to watch him do it. The tiebreak was a brilliant demonstration of Julien’s confidence, and he thoroughly deserved it. As the two players sat down at the break between the sets, I resolved myself to the fact that I was about to watch Roger lose a match against a brilliant player who had been on fire ever since the start of the match. When you’re watching at home, this would be the point where you might close the laptop screen, switch off the television, make frustrated noises and go and sulk somewhere until you feel that you’ve wasted enough time being disappointed to come back and rejoin the fray. We couldn’t close the laptop screen, because we were right there, and as we were right there and lucky enough to be able to see him play live, we would see it through right to the bitter end, be it a bagel loss in the third or a five set thriller victory right into the night.

One thing I realised after the match was that when he had lost the first two sets, not once did I, or anyone near me, pause to mention or give thought to the records. “Oh no, he might be unable to reach his 33rd successive Grand Slam quarter-final, a record which he extended just two weeks ago at the French Open,” was something you certainly did not hear anybody say. One thing I’ve always believed is that Federer isn’t about the records. Sure, he’s got a bunch of them, and you could spend hours reading them and obsessing over them. I don’t doubt that commentators were excitedly mentioning at the changeovers that “this would be Federer’s earliest loss at the slams for eleventy-billion years!” but when you’re watching the points it’s the last thing on your mind. We wanted him to win because we wanted another chance to watch him play on Centre and hit many more whipping forehands and floating backhands and because, however many years he stays on tour, it will never be long enough.

So, two sets down. Benneteau was serving, and fell awkwardly. Roger fashioned a break point with a backhand down the line, he broke, he held, and in the blink of an eye he took the third set. This time, he hadn’t flinched. The anticipation was building. He had served it out to love at *5-2, so there was no doubt that there would be at least a fourth set, but still people stood and applauded him back to his chair. I started to wonder if this might just end up being one of the most incredible evenings of my life as a tennis fan.

So, the fourth. The atmosphere in this set was the most unbelievable that I have ever experienced. The aforementioned group of French fans who had been cheering good-naturedly for their compatriot early on were now decidedly in the corner of France’s adopted son instead. Every point crackled with tension. The digital cameras that people had been snapping with earlier on lay forgotten in their laps and nothing could divert our focus from the play, as our eyes followed the ball as it jerked around the court, back and forth, up and down. We groaned every time an errant forehand skidded past the baseline; we clapped in disbelief at every impossible winner Julien hit. People would rise half out of their seats for an ace.

It was 2-2*, 0-30. A quick rally, then a faultless backhand from Federer made it 0-40, and he shouted “ALLEZ!” Despite Roger’s propensity to have mental walkabouts on breakpoints, we were now extremely excited. Surely he couldn’t lose the lot; surely a fifth set was coming, and soon, and the momentum would be with him. But it wasn’t to be. Julien saved them all brilliantly. Federer was on the back foot again; how many times have we seen any player, of any rank, waste chances then sink into a dispirited funk, and get broken themselves as a result? However, it is not for nothing that Roger’s record in deciding sets for 2012 is an incredible 10-1. He’s been so incredibly clutch lately, and he wasn’t downhearted, and he held serve without problems. 3-3.

Every point now was either a risk or a chance. At *3-4, Roger needed to hold, or Benneteau would serve for the match. At *4-5 and again *5-6, he served to stay in the Championships. Benneteau was still serving brilliantly, there was nothing Roger could do, and, again, we just had to hope for a tiebreak. Then, suddenly, Roger wavered. It was *5-6, 15-30. Before the point began we clapped harder than we had ever done before and yelled out encouragement to him, as the voices of the Centre Court crowd rose in a roar, before being hastily shushed as Roger bounced the ball and tucked his hair behind his ears, waiting. It was a great serve; Benneteau’s reply was short, and Roger thwacked it away for a winner. But he was still two points from going out. He served again; ace. He may have clenched his fist after that, but we were hollering, willing him on. Game point; but Julien got it to deuce. Roger won the next one, advantage; then Julien challenged a backhand of Roger’s that looked long in the next point; it was. Hawkeye was booed. Deuce again. For the fourth time, he was two points from defeat. Advantage; the two engaged in a rally, pulling one another from side to side, before a Federer forehand proved too good and Julien’s reply found the net. Game. 6-6. When Federer won that game, the relief was so intense that it felt like he had won already. This was the opposite of the second set, where he had squandered his own chances on his opponent’s serve in the twelfth game; this time he had fended off the challenge of Benneteau on his own serve. Once again, people rose to their feet in appreciation, anticipating a tiebreak which would be do-or-die.

This was to be a tiebreak where we were continually teetering on the brink of hope. The first point, with Benneteau serving, was a great rally, where each shot nipped past our heads so fast to the extent that we were craning our necks to see around the umpire. A Federer forehand was just long. 1-0. Roger was next to serve; he made it 2-1* with incredible serving, and cried “ALLEZ!” again, to be echoed by thousands in the audience. Then, 2-2; and the first mini-break. He twisted around to hit a stunning crosscourt forehand; Julien’s reply floated in the air and Roger pounced, racing forward to take it and blast it down for a winner. The roar was deafening. Yet, on the next point, Julien got the mini-break back. He did the same thing again when Roger got a second mini-break. We were alternately groaning and cheering and applauding, so nervous and excited and caught up in the incredible drama of the match. Nobody wanted it to end. Finally, it was 6-6. Roger got his third, and final, mini-break, and would serve at *7-6 to take the tiebreak and attempt to give himself a chance to complete his recovery from two sets to love down for the eighth time in his life. He walked up to the baseline to serve; cheers degenerated into whispers, then electric silence. He bounced the ball. It was a short rally; they pulled one another from side to side, slicing and dicing, then Roger aimed a forehand down the line. Julien ran for it, and couldn’t quite manage a reply.

Roger won the tiebreak 8-6, and jogged to his chair with his fist held high. We were jumping around, cheering, amazed, inspired and enthralled. Nobody could have envisaged that the apparently innocent-on-paper third round encounter would turn into this. I’ve seen him win in straights five times before, and play beautifully, but now I have to admit that those matches paled in comparison to watch him fight this out. Whatever it would be, a five set loss or a five set victory, it was still the most amazing match I had ever seen live. To all those pundits and commentators who question his desire and his drive and his heart and whether he’s still got “it,” whatever ‘it’ is… well, I hope they were watching this, because it was incredible.

Early in the third set, had I wondered if the match would end up like the Australian Open semi-final 2011; a multitude of wasted chances that ended in straights. In the fourth set tiebreak, I was reminded of the epic fourth set tiebreak of Roger’s most heroic loss, the famous 2008 final. Many are now wondering whether this match will mirror Roger’s fourth round encounter with Tommy Haas the day after Rafa lost at Roland Garros in 2009. I didn’t have to think back very far when we reached the first game of the final set – I thought of Rosol the night before, and how I had listened in shock to my radio in the campsite as, incredibly, he defied any change in momentum from the fourth set and had broken straight away. It was close in this first game. Every point was a struggle. The people around me who had previously offered up moderate applause to both players in the first two sets were now solidly fistpumping and yelling for Roger far more than the man himself, who still appeared infuriatingly, brilliantly calm. In the end, our worries came to nothing; with a Samprasesque smash, Roger held.

Then, the break came quickly. Benneteau was suffering from cramps towards the end, which was a shame. He had fought so heroically, and in no way deserved to lose. He tried a tweener towards the end, and though he missed it, the crowd appreciated the effort all the same, and gave him a very warm ovation. He, like Roger, will soon be 31, and yet is still seeded, and was still playing with passion and determination right until the very end, despite whatever physical issues he had. To have recovered from a recent horrible elbow injury and to still make it within a set of the fourth round at Wimbledon… there aren’t many who can say they have done that.

Roger got the double break for *5-1 and, finally, we knew the end was near. The cheers that greeted every closing shot were in appreciation not of any particular winner, but of the cumulative effort displayed by both men throughout the match; the brilliance of Benneteau and the resilience of Roger. Then, three match points. We cheered and whistled, the noise built to a crescendo. Roger fired a serve up the T. Julien got it back and waited, watching as Roger smacked a forehand into the furthest corner of the ad court, before his own reply sunk into the bottom of the net. It was over. The standing ovation was immediate. The two players met at the net in a lovely handshake, before Roger walked back into the centre of Centre Court, smiling as we applauded him one last time.

It was now late in the day, and we joined the throngs now exiting the grounds who had sat in the gathering gloom on Henman Hill to watch the conclusion of the match. Everyone was chatting excitedly, dissecting the brilliance of the win and the heroism of the loss, marveling that we had been lucky enough to be there for such a display. We were exhausted but exhilarated as we were stuffed onto the Tube like sardines, laughing and delighted just to have been there. It would be several hours before I would get home but it had been so, so incredibly worth it. I sat by a father and his young son son who had travelled down for the day, and told me excitedly about how they had begun the Mexican wave that had so underlined the excitement of the crowd, late in the fifth. I asked the boy who his favourite player was. He grinned happily, and said, “Federer.”

The dream final

Thinking back over 2009-2010, a phrase that might be summoned to mind is, ‘What a difference a year makes.’

At exactly this time 12 months ago, Rafael Nadal was the reigning World #1, on a 33-match winning streak on clay, and just one victory away from being the first person to claim all three clay Masters 1000 tournaments in a single season. Standing in his way was the written-off World #2 Roger Federer, who hadn’t won a title in close to eight months, and against whom he held a 9-1 record on clay.

Of course, we all know what happened then. It kick-started the most unexpectedly wondrous 12 months for Federer and his fans, and the most unexpectedly frustrating 12 months for the guy at the other end of the net. Over the last few weeks, however, past form seems to have had no influence as Rafa reestablished his stranglehold over the clay season and Roger suffered a string of unexpected losses to players he would usually have beaten. In some ways, the situation for this final is rather similar – Rafa is looking for glory, Roger is looking to make up for recent disappointments.

What a difference a week makes, too. It almost seems like Roger takes perverse pleasure in proving time and time again to his doubters that he is not ‘done’; that when he suffered what some called one of the most embarrassing losses of his career against Montañes in the Estoril semis, it meant nothing for, once again, “he can pace himself and peak at just the right time,” as I said optimistically in my preview of the Estoril match. Arguably against expectations, he made it to the Madrid final after four encouraging matches featuring two blowouts and two epic tussles.

And what of the match itself? Good old Rafa, humble though he may be, is going too far when he says, “[Roger] the top favorite in this tournament.” The Spaniard’s record on clay speaks for itself. It takes some very special play to beat him. Old news. Roger may be at a disadvantage with the Spanish crowd and having played two consecutive three-setters, though this could be cancelled out by the fact that this faster playing clay favors his gamestyle compared to other tournaments like Monte Carlo, Rome, and RG. Neither have been consistently on top form over the week – Federer, though making steady progress, lost the second set against Ferrer largely because his serve and backhand broke down just at the wrong moment, and Rafa played a horrendous (by his standards) first set against Almagro.

For Roger to win he’ll have to have a huge serving day, much like he did in the first set against Ferrer, and have a good mental attitude; two components that have deserted him during other meetings with his rival. Rafa will probably just have to do what he normally does. Pummel Roger’s backhand, and generate unearthly amounts of topspin.

This match could be a blowout, or an intense grapple for dominance. It could set the trend for the rest of the year, or it could end up being an anomaly. Whatever happens, millions of  fans around the world will be watching, and because of the hype, the prestige, the legend, there is one thing I can be relatively sure about – tennis will probably win.

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.

Onwards and upwards

“Being Number 1 is what motivates me,” said Rog after his 6-2, 7-6(4) victory over Benjamin Becker, and probably also his most straight-forward win in months.

In two ways, this match was a hopeful sign of rejuvenation. Firstly, Fed’s stats – to those who use stats as an indication of level – stood at W/UE 35/17 – much improved over his match against Montañes at the weekend, where the UE account hit a stratospheric 48. He also faced no break points on serve. Secondly, he managed to recover and take the second set in the tiebreak despite blowing two break points in Becker’s first service game and later two match points at 6-5 up.

Getting to 5-5 in a set and then blowing it all away has been a problem for Roger in best-of-3 matches lately; he currently remains on an 8-match losing streak from having reached this position in the final set, beginning with a match against Karlovic in 2008; and we weren’t the only ones having flashbacks to the Indian Wells match against Baghdatis where Roger blew two match points in the second set before going on to collapse in the third. Said Federer: “When I lost that drop shot at match point, I thought, ‘Oh no, another match I’ll lose 7-5 in the 3rd!'”

Despite all that, there’s no reason to get too excited. Becker is hardly a clay-court god, and Fed often seemed to have problems returning serves to his forehand side, as well as not changing up his tactics in the second set when Becker was so strong on serve. A greater challenge is yet to come in the form of Leonardo Mayer or more likely the Swiss #2, Stanislas Wawrinka, formerly of Team Fedrinka, who notably took out Fed in straight sets in the third round of Monte Carlo last year.

Yet all in all, it certainly is a step in the right direction. It wasn’t a perfect match but it was on the level of many of Federer’s early-round performances. It remains to be seen whether he can continue to raise his level, or whether his rhythm will once again be disrupted with an early loss in Madrid, the last tournament before the big one – the French Open.

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!

A Loss in Rome

‘Philosophical Federer accepts Rome reality check’ was one of the headlines summing up Roger’s 2-6, 6-1, 7-5 defeat to heralded talent Ernests Gulbis.

That’s certainly what he sounds like when you get to the quotes. Said Federer: “I’m not worried. It’s always like that when you touch a new surface and lose. I think there could have been some good tennis at the back end of the tournament if I’d made it through.”

Thinking about it, he’s right. There’s notable recent example of an early wobble meaning nothing when it came to the final result – Roger’s four-set victory over Igor Andreev in the first round of the Australian Open, where Andreev had a point to take the match into a fifth set. He was coming into that one with more match practice than here, too, having just played a warmup tournament in Doha.

Federer obviously knows what he needs to work on. “I wasn’t up to speed, my serve was poor and it was frustrating. I wasn’t good from the baseline. There was no rhythm in the match and I couldn’t build from deep or get the right height on the ball. Clay is great when you’re in a rhythm as it’s easier to move your opponent around, but I haven’t played enough on clay yet this year.”

The plan of action? According to @DrewLilley on Twitter, Roger is “going to work, practise on clay every day, work some more, play doubles here, Estoril and Madrid then head to the French Open.” And when it’s all laid out like that, it seems obvious he’ll get his match practice, one way or another.

Chin up, Fed fans. In moments like this, it’s time to slot in a DVD of the Australian Open final, and look forward to next week’s Estoril, a tournament boasting seven players inside the Top 50 on its entry list.