Okay, so the question of the moment in the ATP is, “At just what point is Roger Federer entitled to panic?” Armed with a new, theoretically more potent racquet (with a 98-square inch head), he surprised us all soon after he was upset at Wimbledon by entering the Hamburg clay-court event (instead of preparing for the U.S. hard-court segment).
Upset at Hamburg by Federico Delbonis on Saturday, he entered Gstaad (also on clay, also unexpectedly). There, he was upset today in the second round in an hour and five minutes by Daniel Brands, 6-3, 6-4. Before you fling yourself off some towering parapet, be advised that Brands has knocked on this door before; in fact, he took the first set off Federer just a week ago when they met in the round-of-32 in Hamburg.
While Brands is no up-and-coming rookie (he’s 26 and ranked No. 55), he’s a dangerous guy with a big serve — so big that today he was able to wipe away all five break points Federer had in the match, partly because he produced an outstanding first-serve conversion rate (77 percent). Brands didn’t just serve his way to the win, though. He played aggressive, forceful, positive tennis that provided a hardy contrast to Federer’s continuing and uncharacteristic inconsistency. Federer was able to ward off only four of the six break points Brands had, and that was enough to spell the difference.
Once again, Federer was all over the board, mixing vintage, lashing forehands and artful cut backhands with mis-timed boners and, well, just plain inaccuracy. I suppose this transition to the new racquet could be blamed for that, and that’s certainly part of the equation. But some of the shots Federer is missing these days are of the kind he might have successfully converted two or three years ago with the wrong end of a broomstick.
When Brands capitalized on his one break-point to win the first set, you could almost hear the groan emanate from Federer’s guest box, and if you could put a thought bubble over a Federer fan’s head it might have read: “Oh no! here we go again. . .”
But instead of reciting a laundry list of missed opportunities, let’s look at one game that seems representative of Federer’s present form and state of mind. It was the ninth game of the second set, with Federer serving to stay in it at 3-5 after he failed to convert three break points he had against Brands earlier in the set.
Federer began that ninth game with a forehand error. He then hit a good serve that Brands misplayed with the backhand: 15-all. During the next point, both men approached the net, but Federer blinked, making a backhand error. 15-30. Federer countered with an ace to make it 30-all and then hit a pretty backhand volley winner to reach game point, 40-30.
Federer wasted the game point with a double fault, and approached a little too carelessly during the next point, allowing a Brands pass. Suddenly, it was match point for Brands. Federer swept it aside with an ace, followed by a service un-returnable to the forehand, which gave Federer another game point. He wasted it with a mortifying, stiff-legged forehand error off Brand’s serve return: Deuce.
Then Federer found his timing again, and wrapped up the game with an ace and a forehand winner following one of the longer rallies of the game.
Despite that escape, Federer was unable to put Brands under enough pressure to extend the match in the next game — even though Brands started it off with a double fault.
On the second point of that final game, Brands took a poke at an excellent Federer service return; the ball smacked the tape and dribbled over on Federer’s side. The look on Federer’s face at that moment was one of pure disgust, and it seemed dangerously close to approximating a white flag. Brands hit a service un-returnable for 30-15, and then Federer ended a rally with a cross-court forehand that flew out. Although Federer fended off the first of the ensuing match points, Brands bagged the second one with a service un-returnable to the backhand.
Stat of the match: Brands won 75 percent of his first serve points, two percentage points better than Federer in that same category.