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.