It was Ticked-Off-Fed time.
Roger Federer, down 0-3 in the third set to Gael Monfils, had bashed a ball into the upper deck of Manuel Santana stadium in a fit of frustration. He had complained to the chair umpire that the lights in the arena were getting in his eyes. He had blistered a swing volley winner with maximum venom and annoyance.
It was hard to blame him, because Federer likely felt as if he had been ambushed. He had begun the afternoon by watching Monfils sleepwalk his way through a throwaway, 18-minute first set. When Federer locked it up 6-0, he may have thought it was going to be one of those days for the mercurial La Monf, and that he was going to get away with a one-sided, energy-saving win.
Not quite. It turned out that it was only one of those sets for Monfils; in the second, he sprang to life. He attacked, he “allez!”-ed, he pumped his fist, he beat Federer with pace and speed. Meanwhile, the Swiss, possibly taken by surprise, lost his feel for the ball. By the middle of the third set, it didn’t appear as if Federer was going to get it back. He trailed 0-3, 0-15, and as I said before, he was ticked.
Rather than let his frustration get the better of him, though, Federer found a way to channel it by charging the net whenever possible—after first serves, after second serves, after chipped backhands, after returns. Normally, in this day and age, net-rushing is not a viable tactic on clay, but the conditions in Madrid aren’t quite normal. The combination of the surface and the altitude there make it play a little faster than anywhere else during the European clay swing. Federer, who has won at the Caja Magica twice, would take advantage of that fact.
It isn’t often that a match on any surface, but particularly on clay, is decided by two points in which the server comes in behind a second serve; but that’s what happened here. Down 2-4 in the third set, with Monfils serving, Federer reached break point. Monfils was having success serving to Federer’s backhand and moving forward to cut off the crosscourt slice return. So much success that he decided to try it on a second serve at break point. This time, though, instead of going crosscourt, Federer sent his slice down the line, into a wide-open court, for the crucial break back.
Ten minutes later, it was Federer’s turn to face a break point, and to hit a second serve. Except that this time the score was 5-6, which meant that this was also a match point for Monfils. Rather than play it safe, Federer charged again, fended off a solid forehand return from the Frenchman, and eventually won the point with a smash. Federer would save another match point in that game, when Monfils tightened up on a backhand and left it short.
Having survived those scares, Federer kept charging. In the deciding tiebreaker, Federer continued to serve and volley, but Monfils never adjusted. He remained stuck in the shadows at the back of the arena, ceding court position to Federer and nervously sailing returns over the baseline. At 2-4 in the third, Federer had mixed things up on his return and been rewarded. In the tiebreaker, Monfils couldn’t do the same, and that was enough for Federer to escape the ambush with a 6-0, 4-6, 7-6 (3) win.
How far can Federer go with serve and volley on clay? If it’s going to work anywhere, it’s going to be in Madrid.