Roger Federer's long-anticipated return to the ATP World Tour came this past week on the clay - the red clay - of Madrid. The Swiss Maestro was the defending champion at the event but in the third round he was knocked out by Japanese up-and-comer Kei Nishikori 6-4, 1-6, 6-2.
It was a disappointing loss but it could have been expected. After a 7-week absence from playing competitively, there was bound to be some rust, and there was - not just stroke-wise but mentally as well. The loss, while not good in the sense that he didn't get more match practice, does allow him to hit the training grounds for more hard work, and he is already practicing in Rome for the final event before Roland Garros.
As for the match vs Nishikori, I didn't think it was as bad as many Federer fans thought. In the first set he served pretty well and played decent enough but lost it due to one bad service game. In the second set he opened it up and used his full repertoire to perfection. He used a few drop shots, hit his forehand harder and with better placement, and even sneaked into net on second serves occasionally, a tactic he used to great effect at times last year when he won on the blue clay. In the third set he got down early and from there he looked finished. But full credit to Nishikori who played a very solid match and did not go away after losing a 6-1 second set.
Nishikori is a very solid player in all aspects. He has good groundstrokes and a killer backhand down the line. He takes the ball early and has an effective all-round attacking baseline game. In some ways he reminds me of Agassi because of that, and Andre used to give Federer problems in the same sort of way Nishikori gave the Swiss problems. He took away Federer's time away in the first and third sets and did not allow him to dictate. Usually whenever you can do that and not let your opponent glide into his comfort zone, you have an advantage, and in order to beat Federer you must certainly not let him get comfortable. If you do, match over.
I didn't overreact when Fed lost. It was his second match back and he lost to the better man on the day. Some say he looked uninspired and unmotivated, and that may have been the case. He certainly wasn't match-ready in his second match back, and on clay no less (clay that seemed to be slower than it was in years' past). As Fed fans we must accept that he will be losing more week-to-week in the next few years, and that is only natural. But it doesn't mean when the important tournaments on the schedule roll around, he won't be ready. He is a major contender until his results say otherwise. Even if his stamina has drained and he cannot handle longer matches back-to-back anymore, his experience and mental approach to Grand Slam matches will always make him a threat to anyone.
Surely Federer was disappointed by the result and he will advance into Rome with more tenacity. He will take note of what he did well in Madrid (the second set vs Nishikori) and he'll work on what he needs to do better in order to thrive at Rome and at Roland Garros. Personally I believe he should use the drop shot more often since it is a great tactic for him against any opponent. Getting to net in general must be a focus for the Federer team over the next few weeks as he cannot afford to hang back at the baseline against younger opponents, especially in best-of-5 set matches.
I have read on and on about how Federer is 15-5 this season and hasn't looked that great since the Australian Open. That is true. I have also read about how Roger is taking a reduced schedule this season. That is not true. He skipped Doha and Miami, events he played last year. But he is playing in Montreal for the Rogers Cup (which I will be going to), which he didn't play last year after the heavy stretch from Roland Garros to the Olympics in which he played 23 matches. Overall, if he doesn't skip any tournament he is expected to play in (Halle or Paris being the candidates for that), he is only playing one less event this year than last (two if you count the Olympics, but I don't).
If you look at this year compared to last, the margin of difference really isn't that large. Had a few matches not gone Roger's way in the first 5 months of the season, he may have been going into Roland Garros with no titles. He escaped defeat against Davydenko in Rotterdam. He came through against del Potro in Dubai in a tight match where he was up 6-2 in one tiebreak to win it 7-5 and was down 6-2 in the other only to win it 8-6. In Indian Wells he was two points from Bellucci serving for the match in the third round. In Madrid he was very close to losing against Raonic and Berdych. If he doesn't win those matches, his season doesn't look as great.
This year, the only loss that didn't set well with me was the loss to Benneteau in Rotterdam. In Dubai, he played well enough to be a point away from the final. In Indian Wells, the back injury sabotaged him. He played great vs Istomin and Dodig and even against Wawrinka, even though he had the back injury in that match. Then running into Nadal was cruel and instead of withdrawing, he played and lost graciously. And in Madrid, he showed some mental rust and lost to a younger, more concentrated player in Nishikori. But to think, last year, if had lost to Davydenko in Rotterdam, Delpo in Dubai, Bellucci in Indian Wells, and Raonic in Madrid, he would have had a 16-7 record instead of the 29-3 mark he had. All in all, I feel like the difference between this year and last hasn't been much. Perhaps it's just motivation. Last year's performances were driven by getting back to #1, and this year that goal isn't there. Part of it has been health as I suspect he wasn't training that well between Australia and the final match in Indian Wells.
But make no mistake. Federer, while he is declining, is still very much a threat and not somebody to be written off. He has been written off since 2008 and he keeps proving people wrong. He will do so again this year, I fully believe that.
Now, onto Rome. The draw was released and Nadal and Djokovic were drawn in the same half, which is very good for Roger. If the seedings hold up, Fed would have to play Stepanek, Haas, Tsonga, and Murray before the final. However, Haas may have to get by Simon, and Tsonga may have to deal with Jerzy Janowicz, and Grigor Dimitrov or Richard Gasquet before a meeting with Federer. Murray, who is susceptible to being upset on clay by his lesser-ranked foes, may have to deal with Juan Martin del Potro or Nicolas Almagro before a semifinal appearance. And if he does make the semis, I would give Roger an advantage.
Ideally, Federer should make the final. Haas or Simon would be tricky 3rd round opponents and Tsonga, Dimitrov, or Gasquet would all be tough quarterfinal opponents, but they are all very beatable for Fed on clay if he's playing up to his standard. Of course a Dimitrov/Federer match is what most are hoping for and for good reason.
Last year Fed had a decent Rome where he fell to Djokovic in straights in the semis. That tournament came after his wins in Rotterdam, Dubai, Indian Wells, and Madrid, so losing was not a big deal. And historically Fed has never done great in Rome, obviously coming closest to the title in 2006 where he held match points vs Nadal. But this year Rome may mean more than in years' past. First of all, Roger won't want an early exit as he has only played 20 matches this season. Going out in the third round would only put him at 4 matches in two months before the French Open, and that is not great preparation. If he can play well, he can make the final, and I think that would be splendid. If Djokovic and Nadal meet in the semis you know it will be a tough physical match and if it happens, it would be a day before the final. And seeing the way Djokovic manhandled Nadal in Monte Carlo, he could definitely beat Rafa in Rome as he did in 2011.
Of course, Djokovic doesn't have an easy draw himself. He may have to go through Wawrinka, Berdych, and Rafa just to make the final. Nadal has it a little easier with Seppi/Fognini in round two and then Tipsarevic/Troicki/Nieminen in the third round, with David Ferrer in the quarters (basically a walkover on clay).
It should be an interesting tournament and I know all eyes of Fed fans' will be glued to his matches, watching his every stroke. Here's hoping he has a great tournament and rounds into the kind of form that could win him his 18th major title.
This is my tennis blog, Lefty Advantage. Tennis is my biggest passion in life and I started this site to discuss the great game. I mainly follow the career of Roger Federer, but I truly love watching all tennis, whether it be the final of a Grand Slam or a junior tournament on the other side of the world.
I have played tennis for 13 years. If you ever met me, I could talk your head off about all things tennis for hours on end if you would let me. Welcome, and enjoy the writing!