Madrid | Federer gets milestone win in epic 3rd round saga
The Swiss legend became just the second player in the Open Era to reach the hefty sum of 1,200 singles wins. In other developments, all the best players qualified for the quarter-finals, including Djokovic and Nadal, offering the highest-quality match ups in years for Friday.
R. Federer (Swi, 3, seeded 4th) d. G. Monfils (Fra, 18, seeded 15th) 6-0 4-6 7-6 (3)
The craziness of the Champions League semi-finals must have transpired into the tennis world, because the third round match between Roger Federer and Gael Monfils was nothing short of schizophrenic. The two had contested some spirited battles in the past, since Monfils is one of the few players who seem not to revere the Basel native to the point of dread, trailing with a reasonable 4-9 in the head-to-head, and even wasting a match point against him in a thrilling US Open quarter in 2014 – a sign of things to come. Moreover, the Frenchman’s unpredictable game, built on Olympic-worthy defensive athleticism and sudden, rhythm-depriving injections of pace, often hit from the hardest locations off both wings, are some of the most suitable weapons to throw off the great man’s anticipation a little.
However, in a blitzkrieg move unwitnessed since the Ardennes, Federer stood painstakingly close to the baseline, as he did in his second round bashing of Gasquet, and exploited another slow Monfils start – he beat Marton Fucsovics after a quick 1-6 in the first set.
The Frenchman simply couldn’t read Federer’s serve, despite a low 41% of first serves from the Swiss, and got submerged in both short and medium rallies, with Federer’s anticipated backhand being particularly well-centred.
What happened next is a token of the fact that Gasquet wasn’t a good test for him, for he endemically sits far behind the baseline, incapable of adapting his game to the direst occurrences, whereas Monfils, while not frequently aggressive, is one of the biggest personalities on tour, and is actually able to do so – why he has seldom done so throughout his career is a matter of speculation.
La Monf was clearly enraged about being slapped on his buttocks like a schoolchild, or maybe he just craved it in order to conjure his best skills, and threw everything into the serve, before finally adapting on the return, heightening the trajectories to prevent Federer’s anticipation, before injecting sudden pace at the earliest chance. Federer responded by taking the net with more frequency, but Monfils, with nothing left to lose, just hit harder, and won an epic rally to break in the second game. All of this further unsettled the Swiss, so surprised that his opponent fought back that he rushed into more reckless net approaches (he finished the second set 1/5), and even showed impatience towards the umpire for the retracted roof being kept slightly more forward than usual.
Federer’s next move was to put more speed behind his first serve, and to step even further into Monfils’s kick serve from the ad court, winning three points from that side and progressing to a deuce in the seventh game. As soon as the 15 seed’s ire with his serve started to fade, his percentages decreasing, Federer was ready to strike back, and with the third try he broke back following a quadruple fault.
Just when things seemed to fall back into their ordinary pattern, Federer pressuring Monfils at 4-4, 40-40, a 23-shots rally concluded by an Euclidean two-hander down the line sparked another burst of inspiration from Monfils, who somehow scrapped his way to a hold, and, with two forehand acceleration, soared to a double set point, taking it to a third behind a long unforced from Federer, who started to betray a less than perfect footwork post slides recovery steps.
The pattern transitioned into the decider, as Monfils’s groundstrokes looked thicker and thicker, and he won the fourth game in a row, disrupting Federer’s serve with a couple of hard fought rallies, and saving an immediate counter-break point. However, another twist was lurking in the shadows of Manolo Santana’s roof: in the sixth game, the Swiss led with a celestial cross-court forehand at the end of a rally, and seized control, hitting robust topspin backhand in rally while often blocking returns with a finally low enough slice, the last of which was a delicate slow passing shot down the line, which got him back on track.
However, the author of this match screenplay must have been George R. R. Martin on acid, because when the tie-break seemed inevitable, Monfils summoned his last forces and rose to a match point in the twelfth game, and of course Federer saved it with a serve&volley off his second serve, smashing after a couple of parries. Another soon followed, but this time the 20-time Slam champion shrugged it off with less drama, surviving the knightly tilt with a forehand inside-out winner.
Unfortunately, the peripeteias were over, and the tie-break was quite anti-climatic: Monfils double faulted, prompting a 3-0 Federer lead, which cocooned into a 5-1 after a hand-placed forehand volley, and finally sprung into a 7-3 butterfly after an unreturned serve to the T in a tie-break spent mostly at the net by the Swiss legend. It’s safe to assume that the audience got their money’s worth, and that Federer got the competitive time on court he wanted from the clay season, as well as a milestone 1200th victory on tour (the second man to do so in the Open Era after fellow highlander Jimmy Connors), setting up a blockbuster with his Indian Wells vanquisher Dominic Thiem.
D. Thiem (Aus, 5) d. F. Fognini (Ita, 12, seeded 10th) 6-4 7-5
The most anticipated match of the day, pitting against each other the two kingslayers of this clay season, saw a more and more solid Dominic Thiem beat Monte-Carlo’s newly-crowned king Fabio Fognini.
The two have diametrically opposite view of the clay style: Thiem likes to stand far from the baseline (something that’s hindered him on other surfaces until recently) in order to fully charge his thunderous groundstrokes (in this match his spin rate on the backhand was 44 rounds per second, which is higher than most forehands on tour, exploiting the longer lever of the one-handed shot), which couple speed and spin and have a surprisingly low error rate given the proximity for the lines he usually goes for. Fognini, instead, is at his best when he can anticipate his impacts, especially with the backhand down the line (the reason why he and Djokovic have managed to beat Nadal so many times on clay), and when he has the time to variate placement, speed, and touch – to find a similarity, both players are gifted with great court coverage.
After a scary second round against Reilly Opelka, solved by a lower back injury to the American mastodon, Thiem interpreted his game plan with close to no burrs in a tournament he’s clearly very comfortable playing in: Fognini was forced to sit on the linesmen’s laps (even complaining in one instance about their prescriptive immobility), recoiling due to the height of his foe’s ball-bounces, and from that position could keep up in the rally only so far, and often found himself over-hitting to counter such blows. Moreover, Fognini’s average serve (he’s 5ft10) didn’t trouble him too much, allowing him to break early with a couple of deep returns in the third game. From there on, Thiem comfortably held his service games, with only one deuce and no break points allowed, finishing with his signature kick serve from the ad court in 38 minutes.
The second set offered more balance, as the Italian tried to shorten the rallies and forced himself to stand closer to the baseline: virtually nothing happened till the eighth game, when Fognini finally earned a break point with three all-out backhand returns and a forehand passing shot, but Thiem showed his resilience with by sticking to the plan and making him hit from difficult positions, holding after his best drop shot of the day.
More excitement was to follow, with Thiem switching gears and eliciting two mistakes with low slices, but ultimately showing mercy by misdirecting an easy forehand approach to get passed by a Fognini forehand. The change was palpable though, and in the eleventh game Thiem kept slicing to a break of serve. He closed the entertaining match behind a routine volley missed by Fognini, who will now focus on his home tournament in Rome. Thiem confirmed his excellent form, and set up a one-hander meeting Federer meeting that should be a joy to watch.
R. Nadal (Spa, 2) d. F. Tiafoe (USA, 37) 6-3 6-4
The last men’s singles tilt of the day saw four-time champion (five if the 2005 indoor win is counted, which it probably shouldn’t) Rafa Nadal oust one of his best epigones, style-wise, 21-year-old Frances Tiafoe.
Nadal beat on the left corner, a choice that made sense: Tiafoe’s backhand is exasperatedly flat (22 rounds per second in the first two rounds), therefore he is more subject to suffer against a higher bouncing ball – or a lower one for that matter. Ironically, Tiafoe often attempted to apply the same strategy, but Nadal’s anticipated backhand wouldn’t let him do the damage with frequency. When he didn’t do that he went to the figure of the young African American, more often than not preventing him from charging his artisanal but strong forehand: Tiafoe is a great athlete on long distances, but his elaborate swings deny him reactions-based clean impacts on the dominating side.
On top of that, he often hit some intelligent drop shots, as both the aforementioned solutions pushed Tiafoe behind the baseline. Nadal showed some issues with his forehand down the line, a sign that he’s not at his best, but his serve (84% of points won on his first, 82% on his second) is allowing him to get there without too much of a hurry.
Much like Aliassime, in the second set Tiafoe had to go for the lines if he wanted a winner, inevitably piling up mistake. He also varied more, even serve&volleying a couple times from the deuce court, with excellent results, and trying to slice a little more, offering lower balls that got him a 0-30 lead in the third game, earning his first break point behind a precise backhand cross.
However, Nadal took the matter into his hand as usual, cancelling it at the net, and leveling things up with more aggressive serving – although a greater degree of focus cost him a time violation. In hindsight, Tiafoe shouldn’t have poked the sleeping dragon, for Nadal seemed to wake from his slumber and immediately broke his serve with a quick blurry of blows concluded by an inside-out forehand that left Tiafoe a few miles from the ball.
Since Nadal’s style is founded on an Achillean physical brilliance, rather than on the perfect execution of a single stroke, when he gets it going every single part of his game benefits, and he started to make Tiafoe play the proverbial one more ball on each point. The fact that Tiafoe managed to up his level as well is a testament to how good this guy is, probably the best American of the next decade, and the final game proved it even more: summoning his focus, he finally managed to step into the court to return Rafa’s serve, especially his second (the winning percentage for the match dropped to a still outstanding 67%), and got to a 0-30 lead, only to be left breathless after a 29-shots rally concluded by an unreturnable cross-court backhand by the Spaniard, who then served three more winners to take it home after an hour and 32 minutes. Now that the youngsters have been put in their place, the next match will gift us a Slam final rematch, since Stan Wawrinka has looked re-energized all week, not dropping any sets, and might test Nadal’s endurance if he keeps up with this level of play.
Other Thursday matches saw world No.1 Novak Djokovic easily dispatching Jeremy Chardy, while Marin Cilic and defending champion Sascha Zverev rallied to will their way into the quarters – it’s good to see the two fighting back despite not being at their best. Finally, Stan Wawrinka kept turning back the clock against Kei Nishikori, and Stefanos Tsitsipas continued in his under-the-radar run:
N. Djokovic (Srb, 1) d. J. Chardy (Fra, 47) 6-1 7-6 (2)
M. Cilic (Cro, 11, seeded 9th) d. L. Djere (Srb, 32) 4-6 6-3 6-2
S. Tsitsipas (Gre, 8, seeded 7th) d. F. Verdasco (Spa, 38) 6-3 6-4
S. Wawrinka (Swi, 34) d. K. Nishikori (7, seeded sixth) 6-3 7-6 (3)
A. Zverev (4, seeded 3rd) d. H. Hurkacz (Pol, 52, Q) 3-6 6-4 6-4