NEW YORK—Playing catch-up throughout the match, Grega Zemlja finally had Roger Federer where he wanted him: At the net and seemingly on the defensive.
Then Federer bounced to his right, picked off the pass, and blocked a forehand volley into the open court in an exchange that typified the match. No matter what Zemlja threw at him, Federer was one step ahead and armed with an answer.
Looking fit, playing fast, and moving forward, Federer breezed into the second round with a 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 victory that spanned just 93 minutes. It was Federer’s 56th consecutive Grand Slam tournament appearance, tying him with his friend and former doubles partner Wayne Ferreira for the most consecutive majors played by a man.
A spirited crowd greeted Federer with a standing ovation as he took the court, and he treated the fans to an afternoon of attacking tennis, winning 20 of 21 trips to net, including three serve-and-volley points. The 62nd-ranked Zemlja's neon orange shirt recalled the color of a traffic cone, but he was no impediment to Federer, who held at love in three of his first five service games. The pace of Federer’s side-spinning forehand sometimes befuddled Zemlja, who struggled to make clean contact at times.
Typically, players hit souvenir balls into the crowd to celebrate victories. A benevolent Zemlja shanked shots so wildly at times that fans, photographers, linespeople and even Federer’s agent, Tony Godsick, were drawn into the action. A mis-hit smash into the photo pit gave Federer break point at 4-3, and he leaned into a forehand winner to break. The Swiss sealed a 25-minute first set with a 100 M.P.H. ace down the middle.
It was an ideal start against an overmatched opponent. Zemlja, who battled mononucleosis earlier this year, carried a 1-10 career record vs. Top 10 opponents into the match, and never looked like he truly believed he could test Federer. The Slovenian slapped a pair of double faults to face double break point in the first game of the second set, and Federer attacked behind a forehand to break for 1-0, eventually stretching the lead to 3-1 on a 119 M.P.H. ace down the middle. The second set lasted just 23 minutes as Federer cruised through 12 of the final 14 points to take command with a two-set lead after 48 minutes of play.
The serve was a key stroke in the match as Federer created space with the wide slider on the deuce side, then exploited it by banging his flatter serve down the middle. He served 60 percent, hit 12 aces, won 41 of 48 first-serve points, delivered seven love holds, and did not face a break point until the eighth game of the third set.
Federer's running forehand, a shot that let him down in post-Wimbledon clay-court losses to Federico Delbonis and Daniel Brands, was much sharper today, though Zemlja simply could not find the court consistently enough to test the 17-time Grand Slam champion. More to the point, Zemlja wasn’t willing to grind out longer points.
Seeing the No. 7 next to the five-time U.S. Open champion’s name may feel as foreign as the sight of Federer sporting a mohawk, but he looked comfortable today, with his lone misstep coming when he dropped serve for 4-all in the third. Federer quickly recovered, holding at love for 6-5 and finishing with a slick forehand swing volley winner.
IBM Stat of the Match: Federer hit 35 winners, while Zemlja committed 33 unforced errors.
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