How do you make sense of a match like the second-rounder between Roger Federer and Feliciano Lopez today at the Madrid Masters? Federer won, 7-6 (13), 6-7 (1), 7-6 (7), in a thriller that had everyone in the Magic Box stadium—most of whom hoping that hometown "Feli" could pull off the upset—semi-delirious.
In a match that lasted two hours and 56 minutes, there is surely one point that influenced the outcome more than any other—a beautifully (an adjective that you might only apply to the Adonis-like Lopez) botched smash by the Spaniard when he led 5-2 in the third-set tiebreak.
Lopez, whose highest ranking was No. 20 way back in 2005, is a hugely talented player and should have done more with his game than he has. His brilliance has been on display only sparingly during his career, and one of those occasions was against Federer in the fourth round of the 2007 U.S. Open, when he played spellbinding tennis for the first two sets of a night-match defeat, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-4.
Lopez can do it all, but there seems almost always inevitably to be a "Feli moment." It happened today when he missed that smash, at exactly the precise moment when Federer looked beaten and resigned to giving the underdog a victory in front of his passionate home fans.
(Just last Sunday in the Belgrade final, against Novak Djokovic, there was a similar "Feli moment." At 5-5 in the opening set, with Djokovic looking extremely agitated and unsure in only his third match of the tournament, Lopez had a very make-able smash inside the service line to break serve. He somehow conspired to hit it right back to Djokovic, who accepted the gift and blasted an unplayable forehand.)
Had he not missed that fateful overhead, Lopez's sometimes suspect backhand—though impressive of late—would likely have provided the shot of today's match. Lopez powered a break-out, cross-court winner off the backhand side to get the mini-break and lead 3-1 in the third-set tiebreak. That shot appeared destined to provide all the separation he needed—until you know what. But enough about Lopez—what to make of Federer?
Sometimes you can try to assign percentages in assessing the result of a match. On this one, I'd go 75 percent to Lopez's brilliant play and 25 percent to Federer not being on his game. It was Federer's first match after 19 days off, so some allowance has to be made—especially against a zoning opponent looking for what would have probably been the highlight win of his career.
On the negative side, there were lots of disappointing shots by Federer, maybe none more so than when he got back to 5-all in the third-set tiebreak and proceeded to hit a bad forehand error wide. At a time when you'd expect him to pounce for the kill against a deflated opponent, Federer flinched.
But nothing is ever final until the last point, and Federer immediately regrouped with an ace to save the only match point he faced.
The bottom line is that, considering the quality of play of his opponent, it was not that worrying a result for Federer. But it surely would have been a gut-wrenching loss against a fellow 29-year-old just 44 days younger than him, someone he had beaten seven times in a row. Remember that in his previous match, in Monte Carlo, he lost to another 29-year-old, Jurgen Melzer, an opponent he was also been unbeaten against (3-0).
On Thursday he faces yet another old guy, 30-year-old Xavier Malisse, a man he has defeated eight times in a row since their first meeting in Davis Cup in 1999.