The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre came a day late in Rotterdam, where Roger Federer just lost to Julien Benneteau, 6-3, 7-5. You can bet there are quite a few heartbroken Dutch fans after this one. The ubiquitous "Genius at Work" sign was one of many I noticed in the crowd; another read "PeRFection". But Federer was anything but in this one, hitting plenty of errors and serving without his usual assertiveness indoors.
It was a quick first set, and Federer quickly fell behind a break to open the second. When he rallied to make it 4-4, I thought we might be watching the usual script unfold, but Federer never rounded into form, and now the event has lost three of its top four seeds before the semifinals.
I don't want to turn this into another "Is Federer slipping?" debate—he recently navigated past an array of strong players in Melbourne before falling to Andy Murray, and Rog isn't immune to the early-round shocker. I remember watching something similar five years ago in Toronto, when he lost to Gilles Simon before he was (even) Gilles Simon. Federer's done all right for himself since.
I'd rather talk about Benneteau, a player who has troubled Federer in the past. The Frenchman is now 2-4 against Federer, also beating him indoors (in Paris) in 2009. He also put a major scare into Federer at Wimbledon last year, taking the first two sets before the grass-court titan turned the tables.
What makes Benneteau's game so effective against Federer? He's consistent and hits flat, but Federer usually doesn't have much issue with that on a fast court. His serve was working today, but so was his return—he broke Federer five times. There doesn't seem to be anything particularly special about Julien, except perhaps that he doesn't fear beating the widely accepted Greatest Player of All Time. Considering how many lopsided losing streaks there are against Federer, maybe that's pretty special after all.
Maybe this one shouldn't have come as a major surprise, but it did for me. No sooner had I finished writing a Racquet Reaction to Serena Williams's No. 1-making win than I turned around to see that Federer had lost the first set and was down 1-4 in the second. By the time I had finished a quick lunch, it was 4-4 and all appeared to be right with the world again. But Federer couldn't break JB when he had a chance at the end of the second, and he ended up double-faulting his way to match point. Benneteau played a brilliant final point to close it.
So I can't tell you exactly why Federer lost this particular match, or whether it indicated anything about his game. As you said, losing to Benneteau is nothing new for him. One thing that's interesting is that familiarity with Federer's game has usually led to defeat for opponents—he has an amazing record against guys who are around his age. But the opposite seems to have become the case for the 31-year-old Benneteau. Federer has talked about how they knew each other when they were 10, and by now Benneteau clearly (a) knows what Federer is going to do against him, and (b) is confident that he can handle it.
Benneteau has become another late ATP bloomer in his 30s; he reached his career-high ranking of No. 26 last year. This weekend he'll have a shot at his first title in Rotterdam, after seven final-round defeats—certainly the man should get one on his résumé before he's done. What Julien seems to do well against Fed is return serve (he broke Federer three times in the opening set, and how about that bullet return on match point?), and attack with both his forehand and backhand. His two-hander into Federer's one-hander works well, and the last two times they've played he's been able to get Federer in side-to-side retrieving mode along the baseline, and has had success at the net.
Other than that, you got me. Call Benneteau, at 31, a player to watch. Federer, who loses 410 ranking points by not defending his title in Rotterdam, returns in Dubai in two weeks.