(1) Del Potro d. (3) Federer, 7/6 2/6 6/4
Roger Federer this afternoon enjoyed the unusual sensation of entering Basel’s St Jakobshalle as the underdog, although perhaps ‘enjoyed’ isn’t the word. In truth he probably enjoyed it about as much as the Swiss crowd, which for the better part of a decade had been sustained on easy brilliance, but must now seek additional nourishment in hope, a notoriously fickle dietary supplement. It has been that kind of season, and in Juan Martin del Potro he was facing a fine player who has transformed himself into a fearsome contender on every surface, roofed or not.
Last year in Basel Federer performed about as patchily as he has this year, and eventually fell to del Potro in a reasonable three set final. At that time he was the world number one, and all the commentary centred on his doomed bid to retain his ranking until the end of the year. His return to number one had been masterful, and entailed visiting an unusual number of dispiriting losses on del Potro, indeed rather more than seemed necessary. As a consequence, Federer was still the strong favourite for last year’s final. This year he certainly wasn’t. Before the final, he hadn’t defeated another member of the top ten since the quarterfinal of the Australian Open, and was now ranked lower than del Potro. After the final, both those facts are still true. The interest this year lies in wondering whether he will qualify for the World Tour Finals, an event he has won six times. Sky Sports’ resident math-whiz Barry Cowan has run the sums, and reassured us that Federer will be there. Even so, it has, to put it mildly, been a horrible season.
Even that is misleading, though, since the concept of a single season in professional tennis is mostly meaningless. The suggestion that Federer is having a bad season glosses over the reality that he has been playing quite poorly for much longer than that. In fact, though I might be courting a measure of disapproval by saying so, I don’t think he has looked truly impressive since last year’s Olympics. This may seem a contentious point, given that soon after the Games he claimed the Cincinnati Masters without dropping serve, bagelling Novak Djokovic in the final. To the already potent mixture of injury and slumping form, one cannot help but add the question of desire. Overall, his hunger no doubt remains as undiminished as he insists when asked, but at those crucial moments in important matches when every choice must be razor sharp and the execution flawless, his instinct lately seems blunted, the old audacity dulled. Perhaps it is merely a question of confidence, the least tangible casualty of injury and prolonged poor form, and always the last to recover.
Still, Federer looked amply committed today, and wasn’t all that far from winning, and far from sanguine when he didn’t. It was a decent final, and tangentially diverting for how the shape of the whole match was thoughtfully captured in the first set, the way a tree’s form is reprised in each leaf, or the entire idiocy of pop culture is present in a single Kardashian. Nature’s wonder truly is eternal. Anyway, both players looked good early, before del Potro broke and moved ahead, but was broken back to love as he served for the first set. They reached a tiebreak, and Federer’s level plummeted while the Argentine’s didn’t. Federer stormed back in the second, as del Potro conducted an ill-conceived experiment to ascertain how well he’d do without a first serve. Not very well, it turned out.
Having satisfied himself of this, he set about proving the corollary in the third set, winning sixteen of the seventeen first serves he put into play. On Basel’s reasonably quick court, this rendered him all but unbreakable. If only Federer had been. Alas, the key moment came early in the set, as Federer forwent several chances of maintaining his second set momentum, and gradually gave away his serve. His only opportunity to break back came immediately, but del Potro held steady when it counted. The rest of the match turned out to be a long coda. Del Potro, afterwards, was ecstatic. Look for him in Paris, and London. Look for Federer, too.
Youzhny d. (1) Ferrer, 6/3 7/5
Mikhail Youzhny won’t feature in London, although by claiming the title in Valencia a short while later he has reinserted himself back into the top twenty, displacing a few others, and settling at number fifteen. Ferrer meanwhile will be in London, since despite losing today he remains comfortable at world number three. I cannot help but think this lofty position does not reflect his current form.
Unlike Federer, the last twelve months have been the finest of Ferrer’s career, including a maiden Masters title, a Roland Garros final, and a career high ranking. Again I’ll court perversity, this time by arguing that Ferrer has achieved these results in spite of his form and not because of it. If anything this renders his achievement greater still, although I also suspect he has enjoyed a healthy slice of luck, which at the right dosage is hard to gainsay. Consider this: he won the Bercy title last year without playing a match in which he was not the clear favourite, a pretty unlikely scenario when you think about it. He reached the Australian Open semifinal only by the grace of Nicolas Almagro’s brain, while the Jo-Wilfried Tsonga whom Ferrer encountered in the Roland Garros semifinal was a mere shade of the majestic Frenchman who’d trounced Federer the round before. A similar case can be made for Ferrer’s run to the Miami final. I’m not one of those who take pleasure in deriding Ferrer. He’s likeable, is rightly commended for the extent to which he maximises his gifts, and all any player can do it take advantage of situations that fall his way. But I do think he was a much better player last year.
That being said, I also thought he’d beat Youzhny in the Valencia final. For all that victories over Almagro shouldn’t be considered a form guide for anything – even allowing for the degree to which match-ups between compatriots can go haywire – it seemed that Ferrer’s inherent advantages over Youzhny would only be rendered overwhelming by the environment. People euphemistically call Basel Federer’s court, but Valencia really is Ferrer’s court. He co-owns the event, which is staged in the Agora, an attractively stylised bone-cathedral that helps it feel like a novelty level from Topspin 4. One presumes Ferrer’s interests are at least partly responsible for the chemical miracle of Valencia’s surface, so far the world’s most successful attempt at rendering molasses into a shade of cobalt. Unlike Stockholm where the court rewards excellent value for shots, a fact Grigor Dimitrov eventually exploited by hitting a few of his in, the Valencia surface is notoriously difficult to penetrate. Like Ferrer, this court is built for retrieval. For an aggressive yet self-destructive player like Youzhny, whose passage through the draw had mostly entailed outlasting even flakier men than himself, it was a tough proposition.
However, while I maintain that there’s more that can go wrong with an attacking game than a defensive one, Ferrer this year is living proof that inherently defensive tennis still requires more than a pair of legs. He remains as quick as ever, but his retrieving lately has been nowhere near as accomplished as one might expect. Youzhny was superb, bold from the very beginning, from all parts of the court, varied in his approach, and fearless when pressed. Once he finds his groove there are few players more attractive, although his recurrent issue is that he can be degrooved so readily by a really tenacious opponent. Often the one extra shot is one too many, but today Ferrer only sporadically forced the Russian to come up with it.
There was a brief period in the second set when it felt like Ferrer would tear the match away. Suddenly Youzhny could barely win a point, and the local crowd found its voice as their man pulled ahead. But Ferrer’s momentum mysteriously faltered, and a poor service game saw him repeatedly out-rallied and broken back. Soon he was broken again, and Youzhny stepped up to serve for the title, after spending a precious minute pre-visualising it under his towel at the changeover. I cannot say whether it went as he’d planned, but it went as well as he could have hoped. His backhand up the line is unorthodox and beautiful, and today it was instrumental. The last point was thus an appropriate summary: Youzhny launched an attack, Ferrer scrambled desperately, and finally managed to get the ball safely up high to the Russian’s single-hander. The Russian, despite many excellent reasons to grow timid, launched a fearless backhand up the line. Ferrer could reach it, but not control it, and that was the match. Youzhny’s smile afterwards as he saluted the Valencia crowd – far more civilised than Madrid’s – was immense, but exceeded easily by that of his coach. Boris Sobkin doesn’t smile often, but it’s always worth the wait.