Tuesday saw the first matches of four of the top eight seeds, with Federer and ATP No. 1 Djokovic displaying impressive form.
R. Federer (Swi, 3) d. R. Gasquet (Fra, 39) 6-2 6-3
The comeback of the day, but you missed it if you blinked.
Roger Federer’s long-awaited return on clay 7 minutes after a three-year hiatus lasted only 52 minutes, 52 minutes that were enough to dissect the unfortunate Richard Gasquet.
Federer, seeded fourth in Madrid but third in the rankings since Monday, seemed uninterested in the slowness of the surface, and proceeded to win three games in seven minutes. From there on, he seemed to follow his traditional M.O., breezing through his service games and letting the return ones go, but in the eighth game he changed his mind, and decided to swallow Gasquet’s soul like a Lovecraftian behemoth, piercing him with two otherworldly drop shot, the first one off the return, and won the first set in 24 minutes after a missed Gasquet drop shot, fittingly. The second set followed the same pattern, lasting one more game and four more minutes.
What impressed the most was the Swiss’s nonchalant footwork in both directions, managing to hit early and with spin, although Gasquet wasn’t really the right test, since it was his second match of the season, plus he has a 2-17 career record against Federer (and a combined 3-46 against the Big Three…), and usually plays from far behind the baseline, so it’s quite easy to get on top of him. The next match will offer more certainty vis-à-vis his aptitude for the surface, be it against Monfils or Fucsovics (and it remains to be seen how he will fare in matches played during the day), but if this wasn’t an encouraging start, I wonder which one is. However, it should be remembered that every doubt related to Federer’s clay form owes exclusively to his long absence from it, for it the sheer results on the surface were the main parameter of evaluation, there’s no way that he shouldn’t still be considered a top 5 player on the dirt.
F. Fognini (Ita, 12) d. K. Edmund (UK, 22) 6-4 6-3
British No. 1 Kyle Edmund has seen his run in Madrid end immediately, marred by possibly (very likely) the worst opponent he could have met in the first round. As a matter of fact, Fabio Fognini is coming off his greatest win in Monte-Carlo, and his self-assurance is at an all-time high, with his unpredictable mix of backhands hit with tremendous anticipation, sudden injections of pace, and the occasional mouth-watering touch to cap them off.
Edmund is a potentially stellar clay player: he possesses one of the heaviest forehand on tour, especially when he has the time to run around the ball, he has no issues on high-bouncing balls with his Western grip, has the frame and athleticism of a G. I. Joe, and doesn’t rely too heavily on his serve, all ideal features of a red brick master – moreover, he reached the quarter-finals here a year ago. However, his spring campaign has been thoroughly underwhelming so far, as he has now lost 4 consecutive clay matches, after winning his debut against Ugo Humbert in Marrakech.
During the match, Fognini’s current mental form was evident, for, as it happens with athletes on a roll, he did well in categories where he generally doesn’t excel; particularly, he outmaneuvered Edmund on the forehand, hitting more winners (14-10) and even putting more spin on the ball (54-50 rounds per second), aside from the expected dominance on the other side. In synthesis, he decided when to switch on, like he did between the fifth and sixth game, when, down 0-40, an 8-point run brought him three break points, that Edmund saved with some quick combinations. However, the same happened in the ninth game, and this time Fognini didn’t let the break slip through his fingers, exploiting Edmund’s issues with lateral movement on his right side, closing with a fantastic forehand pass, and shutting the door with an ace out wide. Edmund wasn’t lucky either: in the second set, he conceded a break point due to an inside-in forehand that was deflected long by the net cord, and got bitten by a deep backhand from Fognini. The South African-born didn’t recover from that, and conceded defeat with another missed backhand after an hour and a half.
On the bright side, Edmund had many chances, and could now very well use the Italian’s example to turn around this negative spell: Fognini had a terrible start to the season, struggling to win matches against the easiest opponents, and found himself down a set and a break in the first round on the Cote d’Azur against Andrei Rublev, almost sinking to a 6-4 5-1 deficit, but after he dug himself out of that hole (with some theatrics featured as always), he went on to play his best tennis against the likes of Zverev and Nadal, and turned a bad year into a possible Finals bid. For Edmund this might be a little more difficult, as his game is rooted in a steely resolve and more formulaic strategies, but it’s unthinkable that this skid could go on for much longer, all he needs to do is to think one point after the other and results will come. Fognini will now meet Aussie John Millman, who beat Steve Johnson in the afternoon, before a possible (and unmissable) third round match-up with Dominic Thiem.
S. Wawrinka (Swi, 34) d. P. H. Herbert (Fra, 41, Q) 6-2 6-3
Stan Wawrinka is widely known as one of the best interpreters of the modern clay style, endowed with lead-infused groundstrokes generated by extreme backswings, and capable of hitting them with impressive continuity, even from a very backward position. Notably, he grew up on clay, and has won in Paris and Monte-Carlo in the past. However, after he underwent knee surgery in July 2017 (ironically, he would have qualified for the ATP Finals even though he only played half of the season), his star has dimmed considerably, and, despite a good run during last year’s American hardcourt swing, he’s still looking for his best tennis, an objective made more difficult by his Diesel nature, which has always made him more suited to the 3-out-of-5 game rather than to the shorter form – as a matter of fact, he’s one of the players to have won more majors than Masters 1000.
Thus, there was great curiosity about his debut in Madrid, where he had only won one match in the last six years. His opponent, doubles specialist Herbert, was going through a very good run of form on clay, with a third round run in Monte-Carlo and a semi-final in Budapest to prove it, despite an apparently anachronistic serve&volley that usually doesn’t work well on the dirt, despite some notable exceptions, i.e. Tim Henman’s semi-final at the French Open in 2004. Moreover, Madrid’s particular climate might have favoured even more the Frenchman’s big serve, hinting at a potential upset.
What we had, on the other hand, was pure slaughter on the part of “Stan the Man”, as it took him only 65 minutes to completely dismantle Herbert’s game, either anticipating him on the return or turning him into a sitting duck at the net with powerful passing shot hit deep from outside the court, especially from the ad court, without ever giving his opponent a point of reference. Wawrinka broke immediately for a 2-0 lead, with Herbert barely able to touch the ball with tip of his racket, and took the first set home by breaking again in the last game, looking especially comfortable with his inside-out forehand.
The second set saw a lot more balance, with close to no opportunities for both until the 3-3 score, but when Wawrinka held his service game with a signature backhand down the line, he almost palpably switched up a level, pressuring his opponent with a big backhand pass and a rare blocked winner off the return. Herbert kindly aided him with three double faults (he had none before), offering himself for the taking. Wawrinka didn’t hesitate, despite having his first match point disallowed for a foot violation, and comfortably sealed the win, finishing with the prized combination of more winners and fewer unforced errors than his opponent. His next opponent will be surging Guido Pella, whose hooking lefty forehand is creating troubles for the very best, and beat in-form Danil Medvedev in three sets, setting up an exciting battle of styles in the second round.
N. Djokovic (Srb, 1) d. T. Fritz (USA, 57) 6-4 6-2
World No. 1 Novak Djokovic made his debut in the afternoon, winning comfortably against young American Taylor Fritz in a rematch of their Monte-Carlo third round (Djokovic won 6-3 6-0). His first match was anticipated with interest, given RoboNole’s recent dip in form, which he has attributed more to the political distractions coming from his role as the Players Council’s president than to an actual downturn in his game, although it can’t be helped but to wonder if the more defensive style of his late years will be enough to complete a second non-calendar Grand Slam – his ball has lost some weight, and this might not pan out well on the slowest surface.
Djokovic applied his tactics to perfection, as usual: in the seventh game, he discouraged his opponent by fully impacting two powerful serves with his return, wore him down with his rubber-y defence, and locked him in a backhand exchange that resulted in the break, exploiting every weakness in Fritz’s game. The Californian had an immediate chance to level things up (it would be the only one), but missed a forehand after another lengthy rally. The two-time Madrid champion didn’t look back, and completed his work by forcing another mistake off of Fritz’s two-hander. The second set didn’t have much to say, ending on a perfect forehand down the line after an hour and five minutes. The Serbian’s serve was particularly impressive, even though not put to the ultimate test, with 74-85-75 combo in first serves put into play, points won on the first, and points won on the second. His potential next opponents could look very different, either Chardy’s monolithic power game or Schwartzman’s spirited grinding.
Here’s the other results from Tuesday’s matchday, involving David Ferrer living to see another professional match, and Thiem surviving a scare against big server Reilly Opelka, who was forced to retire due to a lower back injury in the last encounter of the day:
H. Hurcacz (Pol, 52,Q) d. A. De Minaur (Aus, 27) 6-3 6-4
M. Fucsovics (Hun, 36) d. D. Goffin (Bel, 23) 6-4 7-5
G. Pella (Arg, 26) d. D. Medvedev (Rus, 14, seeded 11 th ) 6-2 1-6 6-3
A. Mannarino (Fra, 56, LL) d. J. Sousa (Por, 75) 7-5 5-7 6-1
D. Schwartzman (Arg, 25) d. M. Cecchinato (Ita, 19, seeded 16 th ) 6-0 4-6 6-1
H. Dellien (Bol, 109, Q) d. G. Simon (Fra, 29) 4-6 6-1 7-6 (4)
J. Chardy (Fra, 47) d. A. Ramos Vinolas (Spa, 85, Q) 6-2 4-6 7-5
M. Cilic (Cro, 11, seeded 9 th ) d. J.-L. Struff (Ger, 49) 4-6 6-3 6-4
D. Ferrer (Spa, 144, WC) d. R. Bautista Agut (Spa, 21) 6-4 4-6 6-4
J. Millman (Aus, 48) d. S. Johnson (USA, 59) 7-6 (5) 7-6 (5)
L. Pouille (Fra, 28) d. B. Coric (Cro, 15, seeded 13 th ) 6-3 7-5
D. Thiem (Aut, 5) d. R. Opelka (USA, 58) 6-7 (2) 6-3 1-0 ret.