Roger Sterling: Federer teaches Taylor Fritz a lesson in excellence

Roger Sterling: Federer teaches Taylor Fritz a lesson in excellence

The two-time defending champion is into the fourth round of the Australian Open for the 17th time, an Open era record in men's singles.

Watching Taylor Fritz take on Roger Federer in a third-round confrontation on Rod Laver Arena, I wanted to find out how far the 21-year-old has come as a competitor over the last year. He had an impressive 2018 season, winning 23 of 43 matches, moving from No. 105 to No. 49 in the ATP rankings. He started 2019 well, eclipsing John Isner in Auckland. He came into this Australian Open stationed at No. 50.

Based on the growing maturity he has displayed over the last year, not to mention the progress he has made technically as a player, this seemed like a good opportunity for Fritz to face the 37-year-old Swiss champion who is in search of a third consecutive title Down Under.

But the fact of the matter is that Federer gave the Californian a lesson. Perhaps he was disconcerted with the way he played in the previous round against Dan Evans, when he won in straight sets but only after taking the first two sets in tiebreakers. Maybe because this was the third round, Federer felt it was time to lift his game decidedly from where it has been so far in the tournament. Regardless of the reasons, Federer was sprightly in this encounter. His alacrity around the court was astonishing and he looked ten years younger than he is, covering the court beautifully. His ground game was first rate from beginning to end, and his crackling forehand was the best it has been in Melbourne.

And yet, what kept Fritz at bay more than anything else was Federer’s sublime serving. The fluidity of his motion, the supreme accuracy he found in almost every service game and the way he kept Fritz guessing on his returns was extraordinary. Federer never faced a break point and was barely losing points on his delivery all match long. He won with sweeping self assurance and majestic shotmaking, moving past Fritz 6-2, 7-5, 6-2.

The American never quite knew what had hit him as the free-flowing Federer picked him apart ruthlessly. Fritz commenced the match with an easy hold and a couple of aces. But Federer got his teeth into this contest swiftly and took utter control of the first set. He held at love to make it 1-1, broke Fritz with some trademark blocked and chipped returns off big first serves, and then held at 30 for 3-1, recovering from a double fault that put him down 15-30 to sweep three points in a row.

Federer was rolling now. Exposing Fritz’s vulnerability covering the court, Federer broke at 30 for 4-1 by drawing an error from Fritz on the stretch off the forehand. Federer promptly held at love for 5-1. In securing five games in a row, Federer had won 20 of 25 points.

Serving for the set at 5-2, he held at love with an ace down the T. Federer’s propensity to hold serve so quickly and efficiently must have been distressing for his adversary. He served three love games in the first set and won 16 of 18 points on his delivery.

Be that as it may, and despite losing that set in just 20 minutes, Fritz maintained his composure and started picking up the pace of his groundstrokes. He played a bit more on his terms in the second set, and made a nice go of it. In the third game, he saved a break point and gained a crucial hold.

Backing up his potent first serve better than he had in the first set, Fritz stayed with Federer. Returning at 3-4 in that second set, Fritz found a glimpse of daylight. He reached 0-30. Federer, however, was imperturbable. He laced a forehand winner crosscourt behind Fritz, drove a forehand down the line for another outright winner, aced Fritz out wide and then outplayed him in a 25-stroke exchange from the backcourt.

Federer thus took four points in a row for 4-4. Undismayed, Fritz held at love for 5-4 with an inside-out forehand winner. But from that juncture in the set, Federer went to work assiduously and captured three games in a row, taking 12 of 16 points, closing out the 7-5 set emblematically with back-to-back aces. He had accepted the challenge Fritz had presented to him, taking his own tennis to another level when it counted.

Predictably, Federer pulled away from Fritz in the third set. After the American held at love in the first game, Federer took over entirely. He held comfortably, and then broke Fritz for 2-1 with stellar play off the forehand. First he defended on the full stretch off that side to stay in the point and then drove a forehand deep down the line that was too good. On his way from 2-1 to 5-1, Federer took 12 of 15 points. Two games later, he served out the match confidently.

To be sure, Federer’s performance was outstanding from start to finish. His movement, ball striking and serving was remarkably good. But what are we to make of Fritz? What does this one-sided loss tell us about him? Frankly, he has nothing to be ashamed about. He will need to keep working on becoming faster in his side-to-side movement on the baseline; too often, Federer exposed that weakness. Fritz also could have located his serve more accurately in his appointment with Federer. He may feel there are a lot of things he could have done better.

But the fact of the matter is this: Taylor Fritz was up against a top-of-the-line Federer. The simple truth is that he was outmaneuvered and thoroughly outclassed throughout the match by a man who is in search of a 21st major title and a fellow who was clearly in the mood to play some inspired tennis. I believe Fritz will learn significantly from the lesson Federer gave him, and it would not surprise me in the least if he finished this year among the Top 25 in the world.

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