Madrid: Federer d. Stepanek
By the time it was over, one of Roger Federer’s twin girls was so bored that she was crawling all over her mother Mirka’s arms and lap, while the other was reading a book. I presume it was Brad Gilbert’s tome, Winning Ugly, because that’s not the kind of stuff she’s going to learn at the family hearth.
This match was a clash of two compromised men, Federer by lack of match play—it was almost exactly two months since he’d last fired a forehand—and Stepanek by the ongoing struggle to find his A-game. The Czech was sidelined for roughly 10 weeks after his third-round loss at the Australian Open, following neck problems that required surgery.
Federer had an 11-2 edge in their head-to-head, and a No. 2 to No. 48 advantage in present ATP ranking. But perhaps the more important numbers were 31 and 34, their ages. Federer is three years younger than Stepanek, and that edge ultimately seemed to play a significant role in Federer’s 6-3, 6-3 win.
Federer quickly showed that he hadn’t forgotten how to play tennis during all that time off, recording a break at his first opportunity in the fourth game of the first set. The break point produced a fairly long rally ending with a Stepanek forehand error.
Consolidating a break can be a challenge for all but the most dialed in and comfortable of players, and Federer ran into a little trouble on that score in the next game. But he needed to survive two break points, holding with the combination of a Stepanek forehand error and a game-ending service winner: 4-1 Federer.
Federer threatened to break again in the next game when, at 30-all, he tracked a Stepanek drop shot and fired off a cross-court backhand flick-pass just out of his opponent’s desperate reach. It was signature Federer racquet work, but Stepanek swept away the ensuing break point with a smash and went on to hold. Two holds later, Federer calmly served out the set.
The pattern was to repeat in the second set. Stepanek surrendered another early break at 1-1 despite building a 40-15 lead. Federer won four points running from that point, three of them on Stepanek errors set up by some aggressive probing by the Swiss star.
Often, sets that feature early breaks become somewhat tedious exercises. The energy level of the players appears to drop, as if inwardly they’re both thinking, Come on, who’s kidding who? This set is probably over. It’s even worse when the players in question, like these two, are seasoned veterans.
The pro forma nature of the game was only enhanced by the sense that Stepanek was running out of steam. He made more and more errors and attacked both prematurely and sloppily. Federer didn’t look particularly eager to get thing over with quickly, though, and his somewhat lackadaisical play almost allowed Stepanek to sneak back into the hunt.
The men held to 2-4, at which point Federer struck quickly and ably to bag an insurance break. But his ensuing match game, by far the longest and most competitive of the match, proved as slippery as an eel. Federer worked his way to match point three times, only to be denied on each occasion. For his part, Stepanek squandered three break points before he parlayed a botched forehand passing shot and rally backhand error into a break that kept his hopes alive at 3-5.
But Stepanek was gassed. He started the next game with a double fault. He tried to serve-and-volley on the next point, only to watch a forehand pass go whistling past. Now Stepanek was increasingly gasping for air. Then Federer drilled a backhand pass down-the-line to go up 0-40. Stepanek continued his reckless attack, dismissing two of those three match points, but he then converted Federer’s sixth match point for him, thanks to a silly inside-out forehand error.
While nobody would call the match an artistic success, it was good to see Federer back in action, and also to take what might be one of our last good looks at a guy who’s perhaps spent too much time in the shop and accumulated too many miles on the odometer to ever challenge the elite players again.
Stat of the match: Federer converted just four of 10 break points in an easy win. He needs to shake out the cobwebs, but the world No. 2 certainly had no trouble getting into Stepanek’s service games.