Against All Odds

Federer d. Ferrer, 6/1 6/4

There’s an especially tiresome variety of Roger Federer fan who finds it impossible to reconcile their unshakeable faith in his greatness with an overwhelming dread that he’ll blow it every time he steps on the court, no matter who he’s playing. On the one hand, he’s the greatest of all time, while on the other, he’s vulnerable to, say, John Isner. Well, which is it? These fans drive everyone up the wall, including other Federer supporters.

Now naturally no result is guaranteed on a tennis court. Even the mighty Roger Federer can lose to, say, Gael Monfils on any given day. His detractors point to these losses and claim that here is a sure sign of decline. That’s probably inevitable. The strange thing is, many of the more ardently faithful feel obliged to do the same, even as they spar vigorously (or viciously) with the gnostics, whom they regard as heretics.

Anyway, they were out in force again today. Federer was facing the tenacious Spaniard David Ferrer, against whom he boasts a 10-0 record. In case you’re in any doubt over what that means, it means that Roger Federer has never lost to this man in ten attempts. Furthermore, while Ferrer has posted some decent results in the post-US Open season – titlist in Valencia and finalist in Beijing – Federer has been in better form than anybody. If ever a Federer fan could feel quietly confident, it was now.

As it happened, against impossible odds, and despite being the greatest player ever to heft a Wilson, he contrived to prise victory from the very jaws of victory. It wasn’t particularly spectacular, although, inevitably with Federer, it was a little bit spectacular. Indeed, it was one of those quite typical matches in which he calmly dismantles a fellow top ten player for the loss of five games. Even in the halcyon years these were more the norm than the ones where he obliterated all comers while playing left-handed. He was strong in the first set, as the scoreline suggests, and Ferrer’s lone game came from a break against the run of play. The second set was tighter, and the Swiss had to fend off a couple of break point opportunity chance situations in the final game. He did, and now the head-to-head stands at 11-0, the kind of lopsidedness that makes even a manic fan grow comfortable. Lest they grow too comfortable: both Davydenko and Soderling notched their first wins over Federer after 12 straight losses apiece. Ominous.

Ferrer didn’t serve well, but I’m willing to bet he’s won matches in which he’s served worse. He’s probably claimed titles playing no better. After eleven losses to a guy, it’s probably time to admit that your poor performances against him occur for a reason, and that the reason owes a lot to the other guy. Federer’s point to break at 2/2 in the second set illustrated it beautifully, as he pushed and pulled the Spaniard around with spins and paces, judging the moment, surface and his opponent to perfection. Eventually, Ferrer broke down and duffed a forehand. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was masterful. (Federer tried similar moves on Murray in Shanghai, proving that there’s really a time and a place for such things.)

The O2 court is by all accounts playing slow, which the more manic of Rafael Nadal’s detractors adduce as proof-positive that the event has been doctored in his favour. Certainly it’s playing considerably slower than Paris, but that’s not saying much. A quick glance at Federer’s ace count bears this out. (My memory may be a tad rusty, but I vaguely recall he was serving about 147 aces per match in Paris.) However, the court is also playing low, and not taking a ton of spin, which is of little use to Nadal at all, who likes to get his big heavy balls up over his opponent’s shoulders. There’s an image. His match against Roddick on Monday will be interesting, especially since his staunchest fans have already written him off. After all, if you thought Federer’s zealots could be pessimistic about their idol, just wait until you hear Nadal’s get going.

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