MIAMI—It’s the kind of thing that happens to every tennis player a number of times in his career, and if he or she is lucky, it happens against a great player on a big stage. It’s not quite the same as being in that proverbial “zone,” which is an equally treasured gift. It’s really that day when you play like that absolutely best version of yourself.
It happened to Andy Roddick tonight, during his brilliantly-played match against Roger Federer, the No. 3 seed here at the Sony Ericsson Open. Roddick eliminated him in the third round, 7-6 (4), 1-6, 6-4, for his third win over Federer in 24 matches. It's the first time Roddick has beaten Federer since their match here in 2008.
The match was crisp and clean, an old-school type of clash in which both players went about their business with alacrity. But Roddick clearly had that extra spring in his step, a brighter gleam in his eye, and a striking air of confidence. If it were a cologne, you’d call it Eau d’ Resolve.
The translucent character of the match was evident in the turning points, which were few and far between. The most critical one was early in the third set, in the second game, with Roddick serving to even it up at a game apiece. He fell behind 0-40, but worked his way out of the jam with, in succession, an ace, a forehand pass error by Federer, and an overhead winner.
An ace brought Roddick to game point, but Federer denied him with a passing shot winner. Federer fought to another break point, but Roddick crushed an overhead of his own, hit a service winner, and forced a backhand error to hold onto the game and stop the bleeding—he'd been broken three times in the second set.
The effect of this great escape was immediate and telling: Not to be undone, Federer himself fell behind 0-40 in his next service game, through no fault of his own. Roddick hit a scorching forehand winner down the line, made a cross-court forehand winner, and hit a passing shot winner to put The Mighty Fed in a deep, deep hole.
Federer won the next two points, but Roddick then hit a terrific running forehand pass to clinch the break. As Federer said immediately afterward, “I could have been up a break in that second game of the third, but to his credit he held on. And in the game when I get broken, he really goes for it—all credit to him.”
The operative words there were “really goes for it.”
Indeed, that was the outstanding feature of this match right from the start. Roddick took the game to Federer, and Federer didn't back up. Roddick belted his forehand like he has on few other occasions in recent memory; he hit heavy, penetrating serves; he attacked far more frequently than in most past matches. Federer was, well, Federer. Only the result was atypical on this night for him.
Watching Roddick, you had to wonder why he can’t play with a comparable degree of aggression and energy all the time. Answer: because he rarely moves as well as he did tonight.
The match started slowly—and ominiously—for Roddick. Federer had two break points with Roddick serving at 1-2. But once Roddick survived the scare, the men settled into a pattern of comfortable hold games, neither player able to create a break point.
But in the ensuing tiebreaker, two early mini-breaks (one for each man) were inconclusive. Roddick converted the key mini-break when he hit a sizzling forehand pass off a Federer overhead for a 5-3 lead. Federer held his next serve, but Roddick followed with a forehand passing shot winner to reach set point, and he forced Federer to make a backhand pass error to secure the tiebreaker.
Federer ramped it up a notch in the second set and swarmed all over Roddick, who probably had a bit of a mental letdown after taking the tiebreaker—it was just the fifth time he’s won a first set against Federer (he went on to win just one of those five previous matches). Punching through quickly with three breaks of serve, it looked as if Federer might turn the match into a rout—especially when he held the first game of the final set with ease.
But it was not the Andy Roddick with whom Federer was familiar on this night in Miami; it was the best Roddick there is, as the disparity in the statistics suggested: Federer hit 42 winners to Roddick’s 29, and made only five more unforced errors (29). That tells you that Roddick forced plenty of errors from Federer on a night he’s unlikely to ever forget.