On Fire, Inside and Out

Sunday, May 26, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

PARIS—The television camera found Pablo Carreno-Busta just as he was about to emerge from the tunnel leading from the locker rooms to the Court Philippe Chatrier here at Roland Garros. He looked dazzled by the bright light for a moment, and the skin on his boyish face was white as bone. All in all, he looked like a “Tribute,” one of the unlucky youngsters singled out to kill or be killed in the wildly popular dystopian trilogy, The Hunger Games.

But Carreno-Busta, who had drawn No. 2 seed Roger Federer as his first-round opponent, was not quite the curly-haired, slack-jawed youth of 21 that he may have appeared. One of the most talented young players in Spain just a few years ago, Carreno-Busta’s budding career was dealt a blow when he was forced to miss seven months because of a herniated disk (and surgery) last year; the hiatus dropped him out of the Top 600.

Carreno-Busta roared back this year, winning seven of the eight Futures tournaments he’s played. Even more impressive, he qualified for Oeiras just weeks ago, then slashed his way to successive main-draw wins over Julien Benneteau, David Goffin, and Fabio Fognini, before Stanislas Wawrinka laid him low in the semis.

In other words, when you factor in that Federer is pushing 32 and thus prone to have the occasional off-day, there was a legitimate question about just who would be eating who in this game. But it was still handy to remember that when Federer was his opponent’s age, he was competing in his 18th Grand Slam, not—as was the case for Carreno-Busta—his first. The question lingered, though: Would Federer suffer a fate as similar, and utterly unexpected, to the one that befell Serena Williams in the first round here last year?

And, hey, wasn’t Federer one of the disgruntled parties complaining about the Sunday start when the French Tennis Federaton added the extra day? Was that a karmic omen of some kind?

Nah. Federer didn’t merely survive Carreno-Busta, he ripped him to shreds, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3, in well under 90 minutes. And the best news for Federer fans is that it wasn’t so much that Carreno-Busta was in over his head—although he decidedly was—but that the Swiss played magnificent tennis for good portions of the match, especially early on, when it was imperative to keep his young opponent from getting his feet planted.

“It was my first match in a Grand Slam. My first in Roland Garros. First match in center court, and my first match against Roger Federer. So it was very nice, but very difficult,” Carreno-Busta admitted afterward. “I tried to play without nervous, but I think it was not enough.”

Carreno-Busta showed flashes of his talent. He’s one of those newly evolved players who was weaned on clay but remains committed to hitting big and heavy; he’s not afraid to hit his backhand down the line in a tight situations, and his forehand is forceful. But this afternoon Federer was nimble, focused and alert, and he sliced and diced in a way that only he can, rekindling memories of some of his great clay-court performances.

The only lingering issue is that we all know that Federer can sparkle and sizzle against the Carreno-Bustas of this world. The Novak Djokovics and Rafael Nadals are another story altogether. This was pointed out to Federer by a journalist who asked if, with all the talk about Nadal and Djokovic, Federer didn’t feel a little like an “outsider.”

The official transcript of the interview says that Federer replied, “Not a lack of respect.” But I think it more likely that it was misheard, and what Federer really said was, “Not a lot of respect.”

Could it be that Federer is smoldering inside, ready to burst into flame at the real or imagined slights embodied in all the talk about his status as that “outsider?” It’s possible. Remember, nobody—but nobody—really thought Sampras was poised to make a run for his 14th and final Grand Slam title in August 2002. He himself set no goals or targets during that difficult, depressing summer. But instinct told Pete that he had something left inside, that he couldn’t quit and be sure he hadn’t left something behind just yet, whatever happened in the coming weeks and months.

I don’t think Federer is necessarily at that point; after all, he’s still the defending champ at Wimbledon. But I also find it hard to imagine him winning here, although the loss of Andy Murray from the draw is a nice boon for him (albeit more of one for David Ferrer). What I can see him doing here, though, is adding fuel to whatever is smoldering inside, because the one thing we can say for sure is that this win over intriguing upstart Carreno-Busta isn’t exactly what Federer is expecting out of his summer.

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