Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Contrasting careers encapsulated as Federer cruises past

Rumours of Roger Federer's demise have been greatly exaggerated. The no.3 seed eased his way into the tournament in the most satisfying of fashions on Monday afternoon, finding a way past Feliciano Lopez on Philippe Chatrier Court with a minimum of fuss. The 16-time Grand Slam winner prevailed 6-3, 6-4, 7-6(3) in 1hr 59 minutes and can now look forward to a second-round encounter with French wildcard Maxime Teixeira.

The fans were treated to a vintage display from the Swiss legend, who was never troubled and went though his usual panoply of shots, from aces (12 in all) to outrageously sliced drop shots and everything in between. Lopez flattered to deceive, playing some lovely tennis of his own without ever managing to force Federer into a corner.

At the very peak of professional sport, the margins between the greats and the journeymen can be fine, at least to the untrained eye. To the casual observer there was little to choose between Federer and Lopez today. Throughout the match there were long stretches when it was hard to detect which player was arguably the greatest ever to have graced the game, and which was the nearly man, whose career has been spent around the edges of the top 30 players of his generation.

Both 29-year-olds are blessed with impressive physiques, exceptional athleticism and languid playing styles that are pleasing to the eye. Both are capable of firing crowd-delighting winners off either wing, from anywhere on court. They are sure and true overhead and fire aces left and right. Today, both were also guilty of the odd glaring error, the kind that would have the average club player hanging his head in shame.

What separated the two in the end was what has separated them throughout their parallel tennis lives, namely the knack Federer has of raising his game a notch at crucial times - nothing too much, just enough to knock his opponent off his stride and grab the momentum.

Whenever he needed a break in each of the first two sets and, inevitably, to round things up in the third set tie-break, the Swiss Maestro applied the pressure. Each time Lopez would find himself forced into a riskier shot than necessary, into an error, or watching as a Federer ace flew past. So it was in the tie-break, as the Spaniard handed Federer a match point with a double fault, a gift he gratefully accepted with, you've guessed it, an ace of his own.

Federer was clearly pleased with his display: "I feel relieved when I look at the score or the match after playing three tiebreaks in Madrid against him. It's definitely slower than Madrid. So I think Feliciano was maybe not getting the free points, you know, he was looking and hoping for. The important thing from my side was to be solid in my own serve, which I was all the way through from start to finish, and I thought I played a good match."

He may be down to no.3 in the world, but Federer is not about to let Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic disappear off into the distance without putting up a fight…

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