Federer shook off some rust to survive his Shanghai opener

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In the past, Federer has cited the enthusiasm of the fans in Shanghai specifically as a reason to keep playing tennis, and it was easy to see why on Wednesday. (AP)

You might think, in a match against 25-year-old Diego Schwartman, that 36-year-old Roger Federer would have the advantage when it comes to experience. You might think it would be doubly true in Shanghai. After all, Federer was winning Masters Cups on these quick courts back when Schwartzman was playing 14-and-under events in Argentina.

But as any older player knows, experience is a double-edged sword. Yes, there are a lot of good memories for Federer in Shanghai, but there are some scary ones, too, especially when it comes to opening-round matches. The last time he made the trip, in 2015, he was ambushed by Albert Ramos-Viñolas in three sets in his first match. The year before, he had to stave off five match points to survive his opener with Leonardo Mayer. That year, Federer went on to win the tournament; like I said, experience is a double-edged sword.

As he did in 2014 and 2015, Federer arrived with some rust to shake off; he hadn’t played a tour match in five weeks. While the 5’7” Schwartzman wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the speed of the surface and overpower Federer, the assiduous Argentine would surely test his consistency. Schwartzman, a surprise quarterfinalist at the US Open last month, and a semifinalist in Tokyo last week, also happens to be playing the best tennis of his career.

And he played some good tennis against Federer, too. Even on these courts, Schwartzman had little trouble staying with Federer from the baseline. He passed him successfully, and lobbed him successfully, when he was given half a chance, and he drew errors from Federer’s forehand return. When he went down a break in the first set at 2-4, Schwartzman didn’t cave. He broke back and pushed the set to a tiebreaker. Any Chinese fans who hadn’t seen much of Schwartzman were likely impressed by his understated shot-making skills.

That is, if they were actually watching Schwartzman. As always, the Shanghai fans only had eyes, and voices, for Federer. They screamed for even his most standard-issue winners. They chanted “In! In! In!” when he challenged an out call that went against him. They let out a collective “Awww!” when he lost an important point. In the past, Federer has cited the enthusiasm of the fans in Shanghai specifically as a reason to keep playing tennis, and it was easy to see why on Wednesday.

Federer did show his share of rust. He was hellbent on attacking as quickly as possible; he came over his backhand, fired his forehand into the corners, and wasted little time before getting to net. And he made mistakes because of it. Federer pulled his forehand wide a number of times, and struggled to catch up to Schwartzman’s serve on that side. He committed 12 unforced errors in the first set. But he still had what he’s had all year: His serve. Every time Schwartzman threatened, he was treated to an unreturnable delivery from Federer.

At 5-5 in the first set, Schwartzman won a brilliant rally to level at 30-30. Federer responded with an ace. Down 1-2 in the first-set tiebreaker, Federer hit another ace. And down 15-30 at 5-4 in the second set, serving for the match, Federer came up with the shot of the day: a second-serve ace down the T.

In the end, it was experience that made the difference in Federer’s 7-6 (4), 6-4 win; specifically, Schwartzman’s lack of experience in beating Federer. He was 0-3 against the Swiss coming in, and it showed at just the moment when you would expect it to show: When he found himself in the lead for the first time, at 2-0 in the first-set tiebreaker. On that point, a loose and free-swinging Schwartzman smacked a forehand winner. Faced with the same shot a few points later, though, he tightened up and shanked it wide. When he finally had something to lose, Schwartzman lost it.

Federer has survived his opener in Shanghai. Now he moves on to play Alexander Dolgopolov. The Ukrainian is a talented, unpredictable, and dangerous ball-striker, and he reached the final in Shenzhen a couple of weeks ago. He has played with more determination since allegations of match-fixing arose against him this summer. As with Schwartzman, though, it could be experience that tells the tale. Federer is 4-0 against Dolgopolov. 

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