It didn't take long for a sense of déjà vu to envelop Tuesday's second-round match between Roger Federer and Albert Ramos-Viñolas in Shanghai. You had Federer on one side of the court, and on the other you had a Spanish lefty who was determined to do whatever he could to break down Federer's one-handed backhand.
The scenario was familiar, and so was the result. Ramos-Viñolas, stealing a page from his more famous left-handed countryman, Rafael Nadal, beat Federer in one of the shockers of the year, 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-3. From start to finish, Ramos-Viñolas launched everything he could in the direction of the Federer backhand. If anything, the 27-year-old Barcelona native was even more single-minded with that mode of attack than Rafa ever has been.
Ramos-Viñolas, a qualifier ranked 70th in the world, hit his forehands crosscourt and his backhands down the line when he was on the attack, when he was in a neutral rally, and even when he was scrambling on defense. In general, he only broke that pattern and went to Federer’s forehand side when he had time to take a point-ending rip at the ball. The strategy kept Federer at bay in the first and third sets, and paid off in the match's crucial game.
With Federer serving at 3-4 in the third, Ramos-Viñolas surprised him by hauling off and hitting an inside-out winner for 15-30. Two points later, at 30-40, he surprised Federer again by going down the line with another forehand, for another winner. It was Ramos-Viñolas’ only service break of the day, but it was the only one he needed.
Afterward, Ramos-Viñolas, who had never beaten a Top 10 player in 15 tries, was suitably flabbergasted. Sometimes, after an upset, we might say that the player who pulled it was the “only person in the building who believed he could win.” Even that wasn’t the case with Ramos-Viñolas, who happily confessed his lack of self-belief.
"It’s difficult to explain how I feel right now. I didn’t expect this victory," Ramos-Viñolas said. In his only other match against Federer, in the first round at Wimbledon in 2012, he had lost 6-1, 6-1, 6-1.
"After the second set I thought I would lose," he admitted today.
Even the post-match statistics said Ramos-Viñolas should have lost. Federer won more points, hit nine more aces and 23 more winners, won a higher percentage of points on both his first and second serves, earned four more break chances, and was a very respectable 25 of 32 at net. Normally, Federer’s unforced errors would tell the tale in a loss like this, but that wasn’t the case, either. He committed just four more than Ramos-Viñolas.
If there was one stretch of play that proved decisive and doomed Federer, it came during the first-set tiebreaker. From 2-2 to 2-5, he made three mistakes from his backhand side. After Federer won two points to make it 4-5, and gave his Shanghai faithful their first reason to roar, Ramos-Viñolas snuffed the rally out with a hook serve to the—guess where?—backhand side. Federer couldn't handle it.
"I had my chances," said Federer, who had two break points in the second game of the match. "I just couldn’t make it today. I’ve got to look into it. But at the end of the day this can happen during the year."
As Federer noted, it almost happened to him in his opener here in 2014, when he saved five match points against Leonardo Mayer before going on to win the title. This time he couldn’t shake the rust off in time.
"I definitely thought of last year’s match," Federer said. "But at the same time it was a completely different match. Playing a lefty maybe also had something to do with it. Who knows?
"I just think the first round in Shanghai has always been historically quite difficult, getting used to the conditions and the surface and the balls. The balls play very different than in other places. Last year I got lucky. This year I didn’t."
Is that all there is to this Federer loss? Probably. It certainly qualifies as an aberration. Federer is 53-9 in 2015, and his only other opening-round defeat this year, to Nick Kyrgios in Madrid in May, didn’t end up signifying much; after that, Federer reached the final of two of the next three Grand Slams. This time he’ll try to bounce back in the friendlier confines of Basel, his hometown.
The relatively fast courts in Shanghai suit Federer, but he was unable to use the surface to his advantage on Tuesday. He played the big points passively in the first set, and in the third he couldn’t make any inroads on Ramos-Viñolas’ serve. Time and again, the Spaniard used his left hook—whether it was with his serve or his forehand—to Federer’s backhand to get himself out of trouble.
That sounds familiar, doesn't it?