There are many ways in which numbers can deceive in sports, but one that often comes to mind is the three-game lead in tennis. Whether I'm watching or playing, the advantage seems greater than it actually is—provided that the leader isn't serving up 3-0, 4-1, or 5-2.
When Roger Federer won the first three games of his Brisbane semifinal with Jeremy Chardy and went on to take the first set in just 27 minutes, there was little reason to think the result would be anything but routine. Federer, looking much more comfortable with his 98 square-inch racquet than last year, had taken control of this match from the onset, much like in his 6-1, 6-1, quarterfinal demolition of Marinko Matosevic.
But until the penultimate game of this 6-3, 6-7 (3), 6-3 Federer victory, there would be no breaks of serve, an extended stretch of beautifully controlled aggression from Chardy, and plenty of tense moments for fans of the favorite—i.e., the entire crowd. The Aussie fans will have a tough time picking between Federer and his opponent, homegrown Lleyton Hewitt, in tomorrow's final, but there were times late in this match when it appeared that decision wouldn't have to be made.
Removing the beginning and the end of this match from the equation reveals a closely contested duel in which Federer was largely outplayed by Chardy on the ground. But the Swiss' serve was the difference; Federer swatted 20 aces and gave Chardy just one break point all day. He needed every easy point he could muster, as Chardy regularly reached 15-30 and 30-30 while returning on the strength of his favored forehand and on Federer's sometimes erratic play. Federer's backhand held up well against Chardy's firepower—he can do more with a shorter swing, thanks to the larger size of the frame—but his forehand at times evoked memories of last summer, the low point of his disappointing season, when he surely experimented with a healthy dose of skepticism.
But in beginning this season with the new racquet, and playing both the singles and doubles tournaments in Brisbane, Federer is clearly committed to his choice. A lot of what will be written about Federer in the coming days will focus on new coach Stefan Edberg's influence, but Roger's racquet may turn out to the bigger story. There were both positives and negatives Federer can glean from this match, but his week already has to be considered a moderate success.
That may not have been the case had Chardy's fine play persisted past the seventh game of the third set, during which Federer saved the lone break point he offered, continued to fight against inconsistency, and relied on his serve perhaps more than he'd have liked. From 40-15 at 2-2, Federer was brought to deuce, then struck two aces to hold. In his previous service game, Federer won from 15-30 down.
Soon it was 4-3, Federer, with the holding pattern becoming monotonous—but tense. Maybe it was the pressure that got to Chardy, for Federer was gifted a rare break on two double-faults and a pair of wild shots from the Frenchman. Chardy's final four serves of the match were second serves, and Federer won each point, though hardly with the flourishes he's known for. His serve the shot du jour, Federer fittingly closed out the 6-3 set—one much closer than it would appear—and the match with a love hold.