NEW YORK—Someday Bjorn Phau will be able to bounce his kids on his knee and regale them with the story of how he beat the great Roger Federer. How he stood toe-to-toe on a hard court with the Grand Slam king and bested him in straight sets. He may also choose to mention this evening’s match in which the diminutive German was comprehensively routed by Federer, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2. Or he may opt for retelling the match with the happier ending. So what if it happened 13 years before tonight’s match, when Federer was without a title and ranked No. 104? A well-coiffed scalp is still a well-coiffed scalp.
Their careers have obviously gone in far different directions since that match. Federer has more U.S. Open titles (5) than Phau has main-draw wins (4). Federer has never missed the third round; Phau has never reached it. Not surprisingly, the match unfolded with a predictable script. Federer used his first serve (15 aces) and forehand (11 winners) to dictate points and produce opportunities to squeeze the net (32 of 47 points won). His go-to tactic was to work over Phau’s forehand, his weaker wing, to draw errors and short balls. As clinical as the dispatch was, Federer still managed his share of flair with delicate volleys, violent forehands, backhand overhead smashes, and a (missed) tweener. Even on the evening’s undercard, he’s still the game’s showman.
Tie-dye shirt aside, it’s hard not to admire Phau, though. Except for some fleet feet and a sneaky fast serve, he basically brings a knife to a gunfight. But can he ever scrap. He takes a punch and keeps coming…and coming. In two of his previous seven U.S. Opens, Phau made it the hard way: Through the qualies. Along with Federer, they are two of the 33 men 30 years or older to start the tournament, an Open era record. Phau is the definition of journeyman, but countless players bow out long before ever earning the distinction.
But for all his grit, Phau was the perfect foil for Federer’s heroics. His first two rounds have been like an NFL exhibition season: Get in some practice, work any of the kinks out, and don’t get hurt. Federer’s next opponent, Fernando Verdasco (budget Rafa), has not had a great season thus far, but his heavy lefty forehand will provide Federer with his first stiff workout of the tournament. The Spaniard, however, has never beaten Federer in four previous tries. Then again, previous success didn’t provide much help for Phau. Only story value.