The best laid plans...
Roger Federer and Radek Stepanek came out with a similar tactics for their third-round match in Dubai on Wednesday. Federer began on the offensive, looking to knock off forehands and move forward quickly. Stepanek began it in a slightly more specific fashion, by approaching straight at Federer’s backhand and coming in. Each player would periodically abandon and return to their strategies in what turned out to be a topsy-turvy, never predictable, mostly entertaining, three-set shot-maker’s special. In the end, each man would walk away with a triumph of sorts: Stepanek snapped a 17-set losing streak to Federer, which dated back to 2008, but Federer came back from a break down in the third to win, 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-3.
Federer was the first to foil his opponent’s plan. While Stepanek had some success early coming forward on Federer’s backhand—the Czech broke the Swiss to start each set—his drives to that side ended up helping Federer find a groove with his one-hander. At 3-2 in the first, Federer hit a dipping backhand pass to reach 30-30, and he broke serve a minute later with a backhand pass up the line. Two games later, Federer flicked a ball off his shoe-tops for another backhand winner, and closed the set with one more screamer from that side.
In the second set, it was Stepanek’s turn to throw a wrench into the Federer works, and complicate what had looked to be another breezy, Maestroesque, early-round win. Stepanek broke in the opening game again and held for 2-0 with one of the shots of the day, a slice skyhook smash, hit from behind his head (tough to imagine, I know, but that's the Worm for you). For much of the second set and into the third, Federer’s forehand would misfire, and he would hesitate to come forward even when he had the opportunity. That bide-my-time strategy worked once, when Stepanek served for the second set at 5-4 and tightened up. But it didn’t work again in the subsequent tiebreaker, which Stepanek won 7-4.
His set-winning breakthrough complete, Stepanek briefly grew in confidence, and even looked for a minute as if he would make it a match-winning breakthrough. In Federer’s opening service game of the third, Stepanek hit his second extraordinary shot of the day, a diving backhand lob volley to reach break point, and he followed it up with a very assured crosscourt backhand winner. But he didn't stay assured for long. Despite having multiple game points to go up 3-0, Stepanek couldn’t close out the hold. The match returned to its first-set pattern when Federer finally broke with a backhand pass return.
From there, the winds went out of Stepanek’s sails and back into Federer’s, until the latter was serving for the match at 5-2, 40-15. This time it was Federer’s turn to fail to close out a hold; he double faulted twice to hand one of his breaks back, before ending it on Stepanek’s serve in the next game.
For Federer fans, this one had its pros and cons. On the con side, he went from attacking tennis to baseline tennis as the match progressed, surrendered his first set to Stepanek in six years, double-faulted five times, and looked nervy at the close. On the pro side, he was a solid 17 of 25 when he did get to net, he hit more winners (31) than errors (25), and, unlike many matches last year, he didn't let bad turn into worse. Federer rescued himself from disaster by winning six of the last seven games.
Next up for him: Lukas Rosol. The two have never played.