Back From the Brink
January 19, 2011 -- Pretty soon Melbourne, Australia, will be the Asia Pacific's answer to the madhouse tennis we see in late-night New York City at the U. S Open.
First Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian went just under five hours. Then the match between Roger Federer and Gilles Simon warped the clock.
Early in his career, 2002 and 2003, Federer lost in the first rounds of Roland Garros. Then in 2004, Gustavo "Guga" Kuerten got the better of him in the third round of Paris. Gilles Simon threatened to end Federer's run this year in the second round of the Australian Open.
His assault started toward the end of the second set, after Federer had won the first two. Simon didn't let up. He got better and better as Federer compiled mountains of unforced errors. History stood poised to record a dismal stat for the man bookies were betting on heavily to defend his title and become the second man to win five Australian Open titles. Roy Emerson of Australia won 6 singles championships.
As one Aussie commentator put it Federer, "went off the boil."
Federer's record after having won the first two sets in a major is impressive. He's 165-0. What a messy thing to have to explain 165-1. You know the focus of those explanations would land on that one match.
A little known fact before last night: Simon was 2-0 against Federer. The lithe Frenchman had Federer's number.
"Hopefully we won't play each other anymore," Federer told Jim Courier on court minutes after the Swiss pulled himself back from the brink in the fifth set, breaking Simon in the sixth game. Simon dug in, saving three match points at 2-5. Federer won on his fifth match point, with an ace.
"Today I got lucky. I was happy I won and I'm still in the tournament."
Then he added, "I really enjoyed myself out here tonight." But let's face it, he was talking about the atmosphere, the fans from all over the world. You can't believe he 'enjoyed' almost, well, choking.
Courier asked Roger what he was thinking when you came out to start the fifth set? Federer pondered a bit; his heart rate still a bit elevated and his head probably racing. But when he spoke, he revealed an interesting insight.
"Shouldn't he [Simon] be missing more, or getting tired? Didn't he arrive late to the tournament, not prepare well? Shouldn't I be picking it up? Just stay positive."
He sounded like any club player in a similar predicament and not so special, so godlike. All along many thought the mysterious ways of Champion Federer were otherworldly when, in fact, he is another human being bothered by fear like the rest of us, and wondering why the other guy doesn't bow out so he can take his spot in the third round.
Can you relate to that? Yeah, boy!
No one could argue with any conviction that Federer hasn't upped his game. His return of serve is more aggressive. He approaches the net more. And, his backhand has become the best in tennis.
Much of these changes can be attributed to Paul Annacone, Roger's new coach. Annacone and Federer have found common ground, which has helped him expand his tennis repertoire into another dimension.
"I have never seen Roger or anyone ever play better than he did in the first two sets," Mats Wilander wrote in his Wilander On Wheels blog after Federer's first-round win over Lucas Lacko.
Wilander wrote that Federer was playing tennis now for all the right reasons. "He's having fun. He's trying to get better and not just maintaining what he has. Before, he wasn't aggressive enough. Those days are long gone. Over the last six months he has transformed his game into the most aggressive player of all time."
However, the transformed Federer we saw in the first and most of the second set disappeared in sets three and four. Instead the old Federer returned, the one from six months ago. The one who was content to slice returns and start a point.
The speed of the rallies slowed. Simon, somehow, had lassoed Federer into believing the French game was superior to the Swiss aggressive game. They exchanged moderately paced groundies, each waiting tirelessly for an opening. Federer's shots landed short. His footwork seemed sluggish, as if he had sand in his Nike's. He hit with too much topspin, pulling his racquet up too quickly after contacting the ball instead of extending his arm out and through the shot, and then whipping the head.
It wasn't all Federer's fault. Simon played darn well. He was all over that court. His anticipation was beautiful. Simon teed off on sitters, drilling them for exquisite winners that caused his camp and the small contingencies of French fans to rise cheering.
"I had the impression that I was playing just a little bit better than him at the end of the fourth set but, finally, at the beginning of the fifth he played a very good game. It was harder after that," Simon said.
Federer's slowed play could have been strategic. He loves rhythm and with all those unforced errors he might have wanted to establish a groove, to steady his game and then bring on the heat. That's what happened, too.
Federer is now 2-1 in head-to-head competition with Simon. But that won't matter when Federer has to face Xavier Malisse in round three. A new day. A new opponent. The past forgotten. Almost forgotten. Because the experience of pulling out a tough win will again add to the positive sense of possibility for Federer.
Just like it does for his opponents. The court is a level playing field. Gentlemen start your serves.Ê