Rome was the appropriate place for Jerzy Janowicz, a young Polish player on the rise, to have his first audience with the game’s Papal equivalent, Roger Federer. It went as many of us would have expected.
Janowicz is a 6'8" slugger with a bomb serve who loves the drop shot more than anything else. In other words, high-risk is how he plays his tennis. He was even less cautious than normal on Friday evening, apparently having decided that injecting maximum pace into the rallies at the first opportunity was the best way to counter Federer’s own first-strike style. Until the end of each set, it mostly worked for him. Janowicz, who finished with 29 winners against 26 errors, didn’t face a break point through his first four service games. But in the fifth, when he was down 4-5, his low-margin style couldn’t survive the extra bit of pressure. In that game, Janowicz made a backhand error to go down 15-30; at 30-30, he went for a monster forehand and drilled it into the net; and at set point down, on Federer’s first break point of the match, Jerzy popped up a drop shot and Federer passed him.
To his credit, an unfazed Janowicz kept firing in the second. He broke Federer in the opening game with a forehand return winner and held with ease all the way to 5-4. (This was bang-bang, blink-and-someone-just-held tennis throughout; the two players got through 23 games in an hour and 24 minutes.) Again, though, Janowicz’s nerves, as well as his shot selection, deserted him at the crucial moment. On set point, with a look at a hanging mid-court forehand, he went for a drop shot instead and put it in the bottom of the net. At deuce, he double-faulted. And on his third break point, Federer hit his own drop shot/volley combination to make it 5-5.
Jerzy's chance had come and gone in a flash, and he briefly went haywire. A few minutes after being up a set point, he found himself down two match points at 5-6. He saved both with huge serves and forced a tiebreaker—with Janowicz, there's no middle ground between the jaw-dropping and the head-scratching. The subsequent breaker was all Federer, though, as he came up with two forehand winners and two big service winners to clinch a frenetic 6-4, 7-6 (2) win and a trip to the semifinals.
Federer hasn’t dropped a set in Rome, and has looked as sharp as he has all year. For the most part, he handled Janowicz’s pace, and his serve was actually the bigger weapon—Federer made 76 percent of his first deliveries and finished with 11 aces, a more-than-respectable number on clay. And he was just as effective from the ground, where he hit 26 winners against 13 errors. He’s shaken off the Madrid rust and must have his eyes set on his first trip to the Rome final since 2006. Next up he’ll get surprise semifinalist Benoit Paire. The ex-champions all say that it’s tougher to recover as you get older, but even a slightly less spry Federer than the one we’ve seen so far this week should have enough to win that one.