NEW YORK—Well, so much for that Roger Federer death watch. You can postpone it for another day and re-direct your sympathy toward Carlos Berlocq, whom Federer dismissed in something that looked suspiciously like a ritual slaughter at Flushing Meadows, 6-3, 6-2, 6-1.
The entire second-round mixer lasted barely 90 minutes (1:35), and after it Federer told the New York crowd that while some players go out there hoping “to play the best they can,” he sees it a little differently. He’s out there to win or, as he himself put it, a smile creeping over his elastic features, ”I’m more of a results guy.”
The results today were acceptable, by any standard.
These days, the game of choice in the ATP is something like the widely popular child’s pastime, “Where’s Waldo?” It’s called, “Where’s Roger’s backhand?”, and the theory is that if you can find it as effectively as some—I’m not mentioning names!—you have a shot at winning.
As Federer demonstrated today, that’s a risky enterprise at best. Only two or three players in the universe can bring enough pressure to bear on that off-wing of Federer’s to make a real difference, and today’s win over Berlocq was a case study in how that works.
Two games in particular, played early in the match when the end was not yet foretold, illustrated the degree to which playing Federer is usually about finding the backhand, even when it’s not. Stick with me on this.
Federer took an early 3-1 lead when he smacked a forehand service return winner on his first break point of the match. Federer then held, and immediately pinned Berlocq to a love-40 deficit in the next game. It appeared a rout was in the making. But Berlocq escaped from that game thanks mainly to three straight serves fired at Federer’s backhand. They were good but not exactly un-returnables, and the failure to return all three gave good reason for some Federer fans to feel a little anxiety. Inexplicable letdowns and patches of simply poor or sloppy tennis have become part and parcel of Federer’s post-30 persona.
Federer held with authority in the next game, for 5-2, and hit a gorgeous drop shot to take a 15-love lead in the next game. But Berlocq demonstrated that he’s nobody’s fool by going right back at the Federer backhand, and he got a quick point off it for 15-all.
By then, Federer had figured out Berlocq’s strategy and he took to leaning toward his backhand side as his default position. So Berlocq dumped a pretty drop shot the Federer’s unguarded forehand side for 30-15.
The “Where’s the backhand?” strategy then backfired, as Federer met a Berlocq advance with a superb backhand pass for 30-all. Berlocq broke his pattern then, surprising Federer with a serve to the forehand that Federer mangled. But Berlocq was unable to close out the game when Federer hammered a backhand winner for deuce.
Still determined to work that backhand wing, Berlocq engaged Federer in a long rally, ending with a Federer backhand into the net. Berlocq that followed up with a cross-court forehand winner that once again caught Federer leaning to secure the game for 3-5.
I went into that point-by-point recap to show just how tempting—and dangerous—it is to build an entire strategy on finding one side (or the other, for that matter) of an elite player. Berlocq escaped on both those occasions, and it’s no surprise they represented the high-water mark for him in the match. But these were rear-guard actions to begin with, and the struggle they embodied compared with the ease with which Federer exploited his serving advantage was undeniable as well as significant.
Well, what could Berlocq do but continue to pursue that challenging strategy? The problem with having a “game plan” is that it increases the degree of difficulty, which is why elite players always tell us—honestly and accurately in this case—that they’re just going to “play my game.” Who needs the kinds of complications Berlocq brings upon himself when he sets himself the task of accomplishing something Federer has the tools to foil?
Federer broke Berlocq to start the second set, and while the Argentine broke right back, he was unable to repeat the pattern when he was broken again for 1-2, and then again at 1-4. By then, Berlocq seemed to understand the futility of his approach, and as the match wore on he seemed less and less bent on pursuing the matter.
Just in case there was any lingering question about who was in charge after Federer rolled through an easy second set, he broke Berlocq again to start the third, by which time the match had become a mercy killing.
IBM Stat of the Match: Federer’s serving edge was starkly clear in this clash. He won 75 percent (27 of 36) of the first serves he put into play, while Berlocq, who converted an excellent 84 percent (70 of 83) of his first serves, was able to win only 51 percent (36 of 70) of those points.
IBM is a proud sponsor and official technology partner of the U.S. Open. For more information on this match, visit IBM's SlamTracker.