Indian Wells: Federer d. Bellucci

Wednesday, March 14, 2012 /by

201203142110762295793-p2@stats.comIt's getting to the point where, if you're one of the ATP's Big Four and find yourself down a set to Thomaz Bellucci, you can be forgiven for thinking, "Okay, I've got him right where I want him."

Last year, you may remember, Bellucci had a fair shot at being the man who shot Liberty Valence when he led Novak Djokovic by a set and a break in the semifinals of the Madrid Masters. Tonight he took a set off Roger Federer, the man who actually did shoot Liberty Valence in the 2011 French Open semis, but once again Bellucci demonstrated why he's fast becoming the ATP's top candidate for year-end recognition as The Guy Least Likely to Hold a Lead. Federer calmly took control and won it, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. 

It's a pity that Belucci, from Brazil and ranked No. 50, loses the plot so easily, because he has loads of talent. He's not only left-handed, but sort of an old-school southpaw in the way he plays, using that big slice serve in the ad-court, and that infuriating kicker to the forehand on the deuce side. His serving proficiency paid off handsomely in the first set, his best in terms of service percentage (62 percent, but only 52 percent for the match), and Federer helped Bellucci's cause by giving up a break in just the third game. By then, the No. 3 seed had made an alarming—for him—five unforced forehand errors, including the one that gave Bellucci a break point that he then converted when Federer made a backhand error.

Given the way Bellucci was serving and whacking that topspin forehand and solid two-fisted backhand, it looked as if Federer was in deep trouble, and perhaps unnerved by a player with whom he had no prior record. But Bellucci is one of those self-sabotaging types who doesn't seem capable of handling prosperity. It was evident when he gave up a break in the very first game of the next set. Sure, a player is apt to have a letdown after winning a set off someone as highly decorated as Federer. But at 24, and with a fair number of big matches under his belt, Bellucci must know he can't get away with that kind of absent-mindedness—not against Federer.

From that point on, the match was entertaining but, well, downright uneventful. The games literally flew by (the entire three-setter took less than an hour and 45 minutes), but I'm not complaining. The rallies were brief and at times savage. After that first break, neither man would see a break point until Bellucci artfully swept aside three of them to hold in the seventh game to stay within striking distance at 3-4. But Federer held at love in the next game and broke Bellucci for the second time to win the set.

Those breaks early in a set are buzzkills, and thankfully we didn't witness one in the third set. Bellucci's game held up well, considering that he'd let Federer back into the match and the Swiss champ was getting stronger and stronger (Bellucci had just three break points in the match, all of them in the first set). The Brazilian had an excellent chance, though, with Federer serving at 4-all in the third. 

A pair of sloppy backhand errors—the kind for which a Djokovic or Nadal will surely make Federer pay a higher price—gave Bellucci a 30-0 lead. But Federer pulled four marvelous serves out of his sleeve (an ace and three service winners) to put the kibosh on the insurrection. Just like that, Bellucci was serving to stay in it, at 4-5—a daunting position for a player of his psychic profile.

Federer botched a backhand volley on the first point of that game, but three consecutive errors by Bellucci brought Federer to triple match point. Bellucci's next serve was an excellent one to Federer's body; the returner had to step out of his own way to return it. Bellucci fielded the return and went to the Federer backhand. The favorite tried to step around it to hit a forehand, but got in his own way and made a clumsy error.

I took great pains to describe this point because you probably won't see Federer doing anything like that until he's battling Nadal on some senior circuit, circa 2025.

Federer still had another match point, and he looked more like himself this time. He chopped a firm backhand return and Bellucci went for too much with his forehand to produce the match-ending error.

—Pete Bodo

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