20 for 30 – Roger Federer’s Early Round Tests At The Majors (by Matt)


PREAMBLE

Hi, everybody! It’s Matt Zemek, known as “Moonpie” when he gets tennis predictions horribly wrong. Doots has graciously offered me the chance to paint the Fence this week – thank you, Doots! Enjoy my (not-so) United States of America!

I’d like to give this week my own special flavor – writers have to be true to their literary voices – yet still maintain the Fed-centric feel that you come here for. Because I’m into writing, the “Fedporn” I have to offer will flow through the word, not the photo. It’s the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, Pants-elational PJ who will contribute her own Fedporn-rich photos and whiz-bang additions to supplement your dose of Moonpie musings.

I welcome suggestions for writing topics this week — no, not because there’s a dearth of them, but because it’s the last major of the year and therefore the last time in which the eyes of the sports world fully focus on tennis until the third week of January in Dootsland (aka, Australia).

Now, on with the show as week two of the 2011 United States Open commences.

NEVER TRUST ANYONE OVER 30… UNLESS IT’S FED!

The smell of something special permeates the New York air this morning.

No, it’s not a 17th major title. It’s not even a place in the final.

But it is special.

While prodigiously talented players – Berdych, Soderling, Gulbis, Almagro, Melzer, Monfils, Cilic, and others – have a hard time making two major quarterfinals in a row, Roger Federer, at 30 years and four weeks, is one match win away from notching his 30th straight major quarterfinal. Of course, players are remembered for making finals and winning their share of them, but 30 consecutive quarterfinals? 30 straight major tournaments playing at least 9 or 10 days into the event? 30 straight major tournaments beyond the first weekend? That’s seven and a half years’ worth of majors without an early-round upset.

The last time Federer lost before the quarters in a major? The 2004 French against a legendary clay-courter, Gustavo Kuerten. Since then? Federer has evaded the proverbial banana peel.

With this in mind, I present to you “20 for 30” – the 20 early-round tests Federer has survived during his remarkable run. If he can beat Juan Monaco tonight, the 30-year-old Swiss will have his very special “30th” celebration, one of those round-number moments the tennis record book won’t soon forget. Let’s appreciate, then, what it took for Wogie to get to this point in his phenomenal career.

We’ll start with the second-tier selections and work our way to number 1.

20) d. Marin Cilic, 2011 US 3rd round

The 30-year-old from Switzerland had more freshness and fitness than a 22-year-old after four contentious sets. Federer braved tough, windy conditions reminiscent (albeit on a much smaller scale) of his breakthrough 2004 US Open quarterfinal win over Andre Agassi. Federer’s serve wasn’t potent and his ball wasn’t penetrating the court, but he saw off an improving and formidable opponent when other players would have cracked. Typical Fed.

19) d. Marat Safin, 2007 Wimbledon 3rd round

This match wasn’t close, but it’s one of the hardest draws Federer received in the first week of a major. Safin could still play some ball at this point (he stunned Djokovic in the second round of Wimbledon in 2008), but Roger dismissed him in straights.

18) d. Richard Gasquet, 2006 Wimbledon 1st round

Probably the toughest first-round draw Fed has ever received at a major. No problem – straight sets.

17) d. Robin Soderling, 2009 Wimbledon 4th round

This was a straight-setter, but all three sets were played on the razor’s edge. Federer could have relented after outfoxing Soderling just a few weeks earlier at the 2009 French Open, but of course, he didn’t. ONIONS!

16) d. Lleyton Hewitt, 2009 US Open 3rd round

Federer played like crap in this match. He still won after being a set down. That’s what champions do.

15) d. John Isner, 2007 US Open 3rd round

Sure, Federer rolled in the last two sets, but after Isner took the first set in front of a raucous Ashe Stadium crowd, one had to wonder if the tall timber from the University of Georgia was going to keep throwing down untouchable service bombs. Federer cut down the sequoia on the other side of the net, though, silencing an American throng. It wasn’t as easy as it looked. You try it.

14) d. Ilja Bozoljac, 2010 Wimbledon 2nd round

I didn’t see any of this match – Wimbledon exploded at the time Federer played a journeyman on Court 1 (several cliffhanger matches took place at the same time) – but Roger, with his right thigh heavily wrapped, endured four tough sets. Again, you try it sometime and see how easy it is.

13) d. Paul-Henri Mathieu, 2009 French 3rd round

Mathieu came to play, taking the first set and hitting a very clean, big ball. Federer responded on French soil and played three high-class sets to advance. This was one of Federer’s vintage performances against a hot opponent in the early rounds of a major. He gets bonus points for doing it against a foe playing in his home country.

12) d. Igor Andreev, 2010 Australian 1st round

Doots might have been there (I had not yet met her on Twitter – that was in August of 2010), but those outside Australia might forget that Federer was down multiple set points in the third set on Andreev’s serve yet somehow broke back to force a tiebreaker, which he won. This was a toughie. (P.S. Doots WAS there and to show for her support, a few dozen stomach ulcers. – PJ)

11) d. Alejandro Falla, 2010 Wimbledon 1st round

This was an “aura” win. Alejandro Falla realized he was serving to knock the great Federer out of Wimbledon in the first round, and he cracked. That’s also part of being a champion – inspiring fear in an opponent who plays well but can never fully prepare for a moment of such magnitude.

10) d. Tommy Haas, 2006 Australian, 4th round

This was a gorgeous war with fiercely-contested points and savage hitting. Haas – who made the Aussie semifinals three times in his career, unloaded his full arsenal of shots, but Federer had another place to go to, a place the German couldn’t reach.

9) d. Nicolas Kiefer, 2005 US Open 4th round

Federer was in real trouble here against a player who was regularly able to bother him. Wogie faced a break point down 3-4 in the third set of a match that was tied at a set apiece. Federer nailed one of his bunted, angled backhand passes to save that break point, and from then on, he rolled. ONIONS!

8) d. Kiefer, 2005 Wimbledon 3rd round

Federer trailed 3-5 in the fourth set. No problem – he won four straight games to take the match. Pesky opponents did pester Federer, but at majors, they didn’t beat him… not over the past seven and a half years.

THE SPECIAL FEDERER ESCAPES IN EARLY ROUNDS OF MAJORS

Call these the high-class Houdini acts of Federer’s run at the majors. For certain reasons, they rate as more special (to this one observer, anyway) than the examples given above:

7) d. Jose Acasuso, 2009 French 2nd round

Federer trailed 5-1 in the third set of a match that was tied at one set apiece. So many men could have said it wasn’t their day. Federer won the third set and then the fourth against one of the wasted talents of the past decade. This helped set the tone for the 2009 French Open, Federer’s greatest conquest without any debate or question.

6) d. Gilles Simon, 2011 Australian 2nd round

Federer could have tired of Simon’s Wozniacki-like retrieval skills (a great and admirable skill, but one that makes for boring tennis), but he didn’t. He could have unraveled the way he might have (actually, the way he DID) against Simon at Toronto in 2008. Wogie could have gotten tired of remaining on court against a tireless roadrunner. He didn’t. He stayed the course. He prevailed. He was Roger Federer.

5) d. Feliciano Lopez, 2007 US Open 4th round

This is ranked fifth, but it deserves to be ranked higher, if that’s possible. Lopez was serving from a tree and hitting the bejeezus out of the little yellow pill. Federer was down a set and was tied deep into the second set. Lopez had an opening for a two-set lead, but that’s when Federer – still in his prime – found that extra gear. After leveling the match at a set apiece, Federer faced love-40 on his own serve in the first game of the third set. A la Pete Sampras, Federer swatted away those three break points, and from that point onward, Deliciano’s will was broken.

4) d. Andreev, 2008 US Open 4th round

This was a match in which Federer’s game was all over the place against a big-hitting opponent who managed to calibrate his groundstrokes with above-average consistency. Federer had to face other challenges, too: A second-set tiebreak when trailing by a set (a supreme mental test for any men’s professional player); the emotional wear and tear caused by the Olympic grind and its mix of success (doubles) and failure (singles); and tricky conditions caused by a twilight match in New York – the match started late in the afternoon, which meant that Ashe Stadium was bathed in a mixture of angled sun, creeping shadows, and reflected light off the luxury suite windows on the third level of the massive edifice. Federer was battling himself, a gallant opponent, his long summer, and a year in which he hadn’t won a major. In the fifth set, he gained a break lead at 4-2 but then faced several break points. Roger was somehow able to hammer the T serve from the ad-court side and deny each of Andreev’s opportunities. The emotions Federer spilled in this match were noticeable. Until this evening, Planet Federer had never known that its hero could whoop it up like a good ol’ American cowboy. The Picket Fence would probably agree that this is the most emotional Federer has ever been on court at a major, but you can feel free to disagree in ye olde comments sectione! 😉

3) d. Tomas Berdych, 2009 Australian 4th round

Why is this number three on the list? It’s a high-ranking entry because Berdych – while being a Federer nemesis – is one of the conspicuously notable underachievers in the history of Open Era men’s tennis. Berdych has an ideal tennis body, much like Marat Safin. Like Ernests Gulbis, Berdy can hit with imposing, wipe-you-off-the-court power. Like David Nalbandian, Berdych can hit a clean ball rather effortlessly. All these tennis gifts were on display through two and a half sets, as Wogie was knocked off his block. However, Berdych’s prodigious talent has been wasted because the Czech has all the resilience of a cream puff. As soon as he botched that overhead late in the third set, his belief evaporated, and Federer – a man who once had a hard time squeezing everything out of his immense pool of talent – showed Berdych how to go about the business of winning professional tennis matches. Berdych could have been everything Federer has become – his game is that big and that formidable. His mental game, though, prevented him from winning even one major. This match serves as a reminder of what has separated Fed from everyone not named Nadal over the past seven years.

2) d. Janko Tipsarevic, 2008 Australian 3rd round

This was a marathon match. It exceeded the 9-7 fifth set Roger played in a certain Wimbledon final against some Spanish dude. Federer played this match – as we would all learn later – with a mild but still real case of mononucleosis. He had to serve second in the fifth set, meaning that he was serving to stay in the match at 4-5… and 5-6… and 6-7… and 7-8.

He still won. That’s why he’s Roger Federer, and Tipsarevic hasn’t amounted to a hill of beans in an up-and-down career of little historical import.

1) d. Haas, 2009 French 4th round

Finding the focus to nail that inside-out forehand was just the beginning of Federer’s magic in this, his greatest single-match comeback.

It’s not just that Federer pulled out one fourth-rounder in a major tournament after trailing by two sets. It’s that Wogie slayed many other mental demons along the way.

His serve was almost untouchable in the first two sets, and yet he somehow lost those same sets, 6 and 5. The weirdness of the match could have sent him to a dark place in and of itself, but what made this moment particularly hard to handle was that Rafael Nadal had been knocked out of the tournament a day earlier by Robin Soderling. When Federer took the court against Tommy Haas, he knew that all the pressure in the world rested on his shoulders. He knew he had the opportunity of a lifetime in front of him, but all the responsibility as well. If he blew it THIS TIME in Paris, he would never be able to forget about it; as much as he had done at the other three majors in his career, losing this French Open would have left a gaping hole in his resume. This burden was an enormous one, a load few mortals could ever carry with grace.

Federer was just about to falter under the weight of that Monday afternoon at Court Philippe Chatrier. Haas was about to send a thunderbolt through the tennis world.

A great champion wouldn’t let him.

Federer climbed out of a deep, dark ditch. He shrugged off everything that had taken place in the first 2.5 sets. He persevered. He focused. He accessed the deepest well of competitive clarity he has ever found on a tennis court. He made Haas hit extra balls in contentious rallies. He used a drop-shot return to break Haas’ serve in the fourth set. He was even down love-30 when serving at 1-all in the fifth, but he fought off that moment of alarm. Federer produced the second escape job of that unforgettable fortnight in Paris; the Acasuso second-rounder was the first such instance, and the Del Potro semifinal survival act was the third. No single tennis tournament did more to complete Federer’s legacy than this one in Paris. The win over Tommy Haas is the match of the three that will remain entrenched in the public memory for a particularly long time.

Go get Juan Monaco, Fed. Number 30 awaits.

– Matt

P.S. photos all chosen randomly by PJ – no favourtism whatsoever!

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