Net Rush, Gold Rush?

Monday, January 20, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

MELBOURNE—“Let me be aggressive at the start and see what happens.” That’s how Roger Federer described what he was thinking as he began his match with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Monday night here. It’s safe to say that he liked how his little experiment turned out.

If you had “full flight” or “vintage Federer” or “classic Federer” or “the Federer of old,” or “Roger that” in your Australian Open drinking game tonight...well, you’re probably not able to read this. That was the theme of the evening inside Rod Laver Arena as the Maestro—drink!—turned back the clock, put on a clinic for the fans, and put the proverbial wood to the 10th-seeded Tsonga, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4, in under two hours. The numbers were undeniably vintage. Federer hit 43 winners against just 21 errors, won 88 percent of his first-serve points, and was 34 of 41 at the net. That last stat was downright prehistoric, like a flashback to his first Wimbledon title in 2003, when he served and volleyed his way through much of the fortnight.

“I’m very pleased,” Federer said afterward, probably because he really couldn't say anything else. “I was able to play my game, mix it up, come to the net. I was surprised that things worked out for me.”

Really surprised?

“To a degree,” Federer corrected himself, with a smile. “I mean, I’ve been in the quarters before.” 

Federer was so encouraged by the result that he even predicted—again with a smile—that this was the beginning of another streak of 36 Grand Slam quarterfinals. That would match his record run, which was snapped at Wimbledon last year by Sergiy Stakhovsky. Getting back to 36 would also require Federer to play until he was 41 years old and add a few more layers of socks to the two he wore in the chilly air here tonight.

As for his net-rush gold rush, Federer did say that he talked to Stefan Edberg about coming in more beforehand, but that it was still a kind of “wait and see” situation. As with anything in tennis, it’s not as simple as just doing whatever you want to do out there.

“You talk about it,” Federer said. “The question is, Can you do it? Does Jo allow you to? Is he serving too big? How is he returning? It depends a little bit on how the match goes.”

“I was hoping I could play a little bit aggressive, so I think it worked out better than I thought it would. I was good at net. I was consistent, I was solid. I was quick. I had the right mindset.”

That's a lot of things to get right, he warned, and it's not going to click like that every time out. Perhaps more reliably encouraging for Federer is how his racquet feels at the moment, especially on returns and serves, and how his back is holding up.

“I did return really well tonight,” he said. “I do believe I have easier power with the racquet on the serve. It might help me on the return as well. It’s a great start to the season with the racquet, with my body.”

If anything, the media and fan reaction to Federer's romp was even more ecstatic. The first question of his post-match press conference went like this:

Q: Essentially the perfect match. Do you feel the same way?

Another began this way:

Q: Your movement was sublime. Your execution was exemplary. You even challenged well.

(Federer, addressing the reference to his successful challenges, said, “Who cares, you know?”)

Afterward, one British reporter tweeted, “A delight to see him play this way again.” Another was so emboldened by the Maestro's form that he peeked ahead at Federer's possible road to the title—Murray, then Nadal, then Djokovic—and asked his readers whether conquering those three at age 32, “would be the greatest achievement in tennis history.” Yes, the talk was that big around Melbourne Park.

Tennis fans and writers want Federer to be back; they want it badly. Is it possible that this desire affects their judgment? It should be noted that Tsonga is not among the ATP's very top tier, and he showed why tonight. As he so often does, Jo used the first set as the equivalent of a cup of coffee, something to get him out of bed. He found his serve in the second set, but couldn’t find his return game, and he went away completely until he was down 2-4, 0-40 in the third set. At that point, Jo let out a primal scream and belted a ball out of the stadium. It was only then, two games from defeat, that he played with any visible energy. It was obviously too late. By starting so slowly so often in these types of matches, Tsonga drastically narrows his windows of opportunity. Next time, Jo might want to go out, get the bad warm-up out of his system, and take his frustrations out on a ball before the match begins. 

On Wednesday night, Federer will face a player from the top tier, Andy Murray; we'll find out much more from that match. The last two years in Australia, Federer has looked equally brilliant in the early going. In 2012, he straight-setted Bernard Tomic and Juan Martin del Potro and was favored to beat Rafael Nadal in the semis—but he lost in four sets. Last year he straight-setted Tomic and Milos Raonic and beat Tsonga in a high-quality five-setter before going out to Murray in the semis. When Federer is good, when he’s in full flight—drink!—there’s still no one in the game who can match him for stylishness and versatility; even at 32, no one makes it look easier. But there’s a reason he’s 10-4 for his career against Tsonga and 9-11 against Murray. With their returns, their consistency, their speed, and their belief, the other guys in the Big 4 are much better than anyone else at not making it easy for him.

Federer lost in five sets to Murray last year, after winning in five over Tsonga two days earlier. He thinks his quick work tonight will help him last longer on Wednesday, and he’s almost certainly right. Plus, as Federer has mentioned numerous times here, Murray had surgery recently and probably still has “doubts” about his game. Still, last year when they played here—it was the last time they played anywhere—Murray looked confident that he was the better player. He'll certainly make Federer hit a lot more balls than Tsonga did tonight.

As Federer said before his match today, we’ll see what happens. Judging from the last two Australian Opens, there’s reason to be cautious about the sustainability of his brilliant play. But there was also something undeniably encouraging about that play tonight. The ball sounded bigger coming off of Federer’s strings inside Laver Arena. It sounded fuller. It sounded, dare I say it, sublime. Drink!

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