In his first two matches, Roger Federer was sluggish. Very sluggish. He didn’t move with that familiar spring in his step, his intensity was all over the place and his shots didn’t have their familiar pop to them. He played much like how I expected him to play at the start of the year, in Australia – a tennis player returning from a six-month injury layoff, severely lacking in match practice and extremely cautious of the body that betrayed him last year. We all know Federer didn’t play like that. In fact, he hadn’t played like a man coming from an injury layoff, all year. After his second consecutive five-setter, tennis analysts and fans alike struggled to make sense of Federer’s undulating form. The Swiss maintained that his only problem was the inadequate lack of preparation he needed, coming into the season’s final grand slam. Turns out that may have been all there was to it.
Against Feliciano Lopez, Federer finally played like a man chasing his third grand slam of the year. He finally hit like a player who is very much in the running for the year end number one position. He finally won like a champion chasing his 20th grand slam title. Coming into this third round match, there were worries about how fresh Federer would feel. He was playing Feliciano Lopez, a Spaniard who had made attacking tennis, his bread, and butter. He’d never beaten Federer in twelve tries, but Mikhail Youzhny had narrowly missed bagging his first in eighteen two nights before. There was no reason a quality player like Lopez couldn’t fancy his chances.
The match between these two was an entertaining one. Both players produced sublime shot-making. They flicked delicate one handed backhand passes just out of reach, drilled each other at the net with topspin drives and Lopez, in particular, was keen on showing off a very much improved drive backhand that allowed him to stay with Federer from the back of the court in a way I’d never seen before.
Where has that shot been his whole career?
The new rallying Lopez presented a slightly varied challenge for Federer and would have posed problems for the Federer that showed up against Frances Tiafoe and Mikhail Youzhny. But as we have said, the more familiar Federer showed up today. The marked difference was Federer’s intensity. When the games got a little tight, as they invariably will against quality opposition, Federer was able to elevate his game and lock down on the big points. When Lopez hit what would have been a blazing passing shot against anyone else, Federer stole the point with a stab volley save that Lopez could do nothing about. When the Spaniard engaged Federer in a furious back and forth rally, Federer was usually one step ahead when it mattered. He often left Lopez standing with his hands on his hips, looking on in amazement. Here he was, giving his best and Federer was returning it with interest. Even a third set break of serve would not deter Federer. He was determined to win this match in straight sets and his yell of triumph after the final point, showed just how much achieving that meant to him.
As we move into the second week, Federer has finally moved into another gear. This wasn’t vintage Federer, but this was better. It had to be from him. The draw is wide open, but dangerous players are still around. Philipp Kohlschreiber, another wicked shotmaker, is next up for Federer. Heading into that match, no one knows better than Federer that anything less than his third round form, won’t do.