If Not Fast Then Furious

Hamburg, Semifinals

(12) Fognini d. (3) Almagro, 6/4 7/6

(Q) Delbonis d. (1) Federer, 7/6 7/6

The final of the German Tennis Championships will be contested by Fabio Fognini, who has never reached this stage at any tournament so august, and qualifier Federico Delbonis, who has never advanced to a main tour final at all. Before the event, I’m not sure what the odds were on this particular configuration eventuating, or even if odds can go that high. Delbonis Federer Hamburg 2013 -1Indeed, even coming into today’s semifinals this potential match-up still looked like the kind of long-shot that sees veteran snipers shake their heads, pack up their rifles, and call in sick.

The official name of the German Tennis Championships, staged in Hamburg’s magnificent Rothenbaum stadium, is the bet-at-home Open, which should not be confused with Kitzbühel’s equally lower-case-ridden bet-at-home Cup, due to commence in a few weeks. There’s a deflating sense when you type ‘bet-at-home Open’ that your article is not destined for any posterity more meaningful than a cute historiographical misunderstanding. Future historians studying this period will surely infer that betting from home was not widespread in our time, given that we felt a need to deliberately name those few events that allowed it. In case any future historians are reading this piece, perhaps anthologised in Most Frivolous Sports Writing 2013, let me assure you that we are permitted, if not encouraged, to gamble from anywhere. I shall also take the opportunity to apologise for all those Fast and the Furious films. I think we’re up to several dozen now, but there are presumably hundreds by the time you read this, choking all levels of culture. Sorry about that.

Anyway, I seem to have strayed off track, not unlike Lucas Black in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. In order to progress to the final, Fognini and Delbonis were obliged to see off Nicolas Almagro and Roger Federer respectively, who between them have reached 132 tour finals. They thus had their work cut out. Fognini had displayed fine form to claim his first career title in Stuttgart last week, and was admittedly a reasonable chance to beat Almagro, whose form hasn’t been great. Federer’s form hasn’t been great, either, but nor had he lost to a qualifier since 2007.†

As it happened, the first semifinal was decided by the man with the sturdier mental resilience, and a greater to capacity to maintain focus even when his momentum stalled. For the first time that I can recall, this man was Fognini. Not for the first time, it wasn’t Almagro, who permitted himself to become fatally distracted in the opening game of the match, and took half an hour to recover. By that stage the first set was nearing its end. The Spaniard saved a handful of set points on his own serve, started to exhort himself at a dull roar, but subsequently couldn’t stop Fognini from serving it out. Nevertheless, there was every reason to believe Almagro was fully engaged by now.

There was less reason to believe it when he opened the second set with a poor game to be broken. This time he couldn’t even blame the umpire. The Italian was looking admirably poised and often brilliant on defence, until he didn’t, and Almagro broke back. His bellows expanded, until their lust filled the Rothenbaum and less macho onlookers attempted with varying success to stifle their laughter. From there it was tight. Fognini saved a set point at 4/5 with another fearless forehand winner, made it to the tiebreak, and watched on with interest as Almagro lost his way entirely. He was even foot faulted: ‘That’ll help his mood,’ remarked the commentator. Fognini won the tiebreaker seven points to one, the last of which was a weak double fault from Almagro, who was strolling forward before the ball landed on the court. Fognini was through, presumably to face Federer.

Instead, he’ll face Delbonis, who played what one presumes was the match of his career to defeat Federer in straight sets. I shyly confess that I haven’t seen many of Delbonis’s tour matches so far this year, for all that there were only eight of them and doing so would not have detained me long. In my defence, he usually loses long before he reaches a televised court. Last month he was bagelled by Somdev Devvarman at a Challenger in Italy, which is an effective way to stay off anyone’s radar. Coming into Hamburg he was ranked No.114, although he’ll leave ranked considerably higher: No.64 if he loses tomorrow, and No.41 if he wins. The path to the big time through Hamburg is one that Andrei Golubev hacked clean a few years ago, although it has since become overgrown again. Delbonis has also become the first man born in the 1990s to defeat Federer, an honour that I had presumed would fall to Raonic or Janowicz (if not Kokkinakis or Quinzi, the way things were headed). With due caution I hope that Delbonis goes on with it, whatever tomorrow’s result. He has the game for it.

He achieved today’s result by outplaying Federer quite comprehensively on serve and off the ground, by taking fearless cuts every time he could set his feet, and hardly missing, for hours. It was very impressive. When you’re six-foot-three, this is a winning combination against nearly anyone, even Federer. Federer was not at his best, as he hasn’t been all week, or all year, though he still played reasonably, and certainly better than he did in the first two rounds. His serve let him down, however: even on clay a hulking lad like Delbonis, who wasn’t reading the slider at all, shouldn’t have been permitted to make that many returns so comfortably. Federer was obliged to fight in nearly every service game, especially in the second set. Although he thankfully didn’t resort to that natty sweater vest from the quarterfinal, his back was heavily taped, and the speed and percentages of his first serves were well down, as they have been for some time. There is also the matter of the new racquet, although he was quick to dismiss the idea that this had much bearing on the result. Federer has won plenty of matches playing worse than this, and he did hold set points in the first set. The difference was Delbonis.

Mostly the result hinged on Delbonis’s fearless commitment not to relinquish control of rallies once he took control of them, whereas Federer, overly cautious, too often did. This caution is the most telling pattern this year, and one that becomes particularly evident on big points. ‘Confidence’ was Goodall’s go-to term in commentary, and it wasn’t the wrong one. There was a time when only the very best could hope to wrest control of a point back from Federer once he’d sunk his teeth into it. Now it seems as though everyone can manage it. Delbonis was only ever one good defensive shot from resetting most rallies. It’s to his credit that he so often came up with that shot.

One could contend that this is clay, and that it’s not Federer’s best surface, but it’s worth remembering that the Rothenbaum is his best clay surface, aside from the fabled blue dirt of the Caja Magica. Between 2002 and 2008 he played the tournament six times, reaching five finals, and winning four. However, this was the first time he’s been back since the tournament was demoted to ‘500’ status. While he obviously preferred to win it, he certainly has rather less riding on the outcome than the brittle parts of his fan-base who’ve summarily consigned him to the scrap-heap. For them it’s all or nothing. If winning the Hamburg event was terribly important to Federer, you’d imagine he would have made more of an effort to play there at some point in the last five years. As he has said, he was only there to try out the new frame. Next week he’ll be in Gstaad, doing the same. If he doesn’t win that, on home soil, there will inevitably be stern demands – delivered fast and furious – that he hang up his racquets for good, old and new. As he said years ago, his success created a monster. I doubt whether he is overly bothered, or even notices anymore. His success also created fabulous wealth and worldwide fame. Those can insulate you from a lot.

A large part of the problem is that, beyond a certain age, any form slump is taken as proof of terminal decline. This isn’t to suggest that the two are unrelated. Loss of form occurs more regularly towards the end of one’s career, and it tends to be more prolonged. But it also doesn’t mean that slumps are irreversible or permanent. The general arc tends downward, but, as with any other stage of a sporting career, there are rises and dips along the curve. Federer is no longer the player he was, but I’ve no doubt he’s still a better player than his recent results attest. Beyond that, however, he still professes to enjoy the game. That should be enough for anyone. Demanding that Federer retire is like expecting Vin Diesel to give up both rapidity or rage, simply because he now struggles to do both at the same time. That would be a shame.

† Indeed, the losses to Guillermo Cañas are difficult even to categorise as losses to a qualifier, since the Argentine was returning from an overturned doping ban, and had been ranked number eight before he was suspended. Federer’s previous loss to a qualifier was to Richard Gasquet in Monte Carlo 2005.

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