Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Roger Federer outlasts Simon moves into Aussie Open 3rd round

As elegantly as he moves, as smoothly flow his delicate strokes and his five-language rhetoric, Roger Federer is no less vulnerable than his peers to the pressures of his sport.

The difference is, as he demonstrated when surviving an intense examination of his composure by Gilles Simon in the second round of the Australian Open, he can still draw on powers that seem outrageous to everyone but himself.

Foes and doubters will probably see further evidence of his gradual decline in this heart-stopper stretched over three hours and 19 minutes, which ultimately went Federer's way 6-2, 6-2, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, and he too may feel under more pressure now than he did at the start of the tournament.

Indeed those left on his side of the draw, including Novak Djokovic and his opponent in the third round on Friday, the Belgian Xavier Malisse, may be less uncomfortable when they look across the net at him from now on.

Yet Federer remains a ruthless punisher of even minor mistakes. The Rod Laver Arena, filled with the Federer faithful, swayed to his every fightback in the fifth set, and he got the job done yet again as Simon wilted, even though it took every sinew of the Swiss's will and talent. "Yes, I was tired," Simon said. "I had to run everywhere for three hours. There are not too many players who can play longer than me, but Roger is one of them."

Of the many astounding statistics that illuminate Federer's career, one still to be consigned to the past tense, is that of his nerveless ability to close out a match when in front. The only times he has lost when leading two sets to love were against Lleyton Hewitt in the Davis Cup in 2003, and against David Nalbandian in Shanghai in 2005.

Nevertheless, for a long while in the middle of this match, that record was in jeopardy. The world No2 looked bereft of ideas. Simon had his measure in timing and tactics, as he drew him on to the punch at the net, only to pass and lob, sometimes with chilling ease.

Federer likes to give the impression that he always plays within himself, but that was not consistently the case last night. From the moment in the third set when the Frenchman discovered a reservoir of self-belief that surprised even him until he was broken in the final stanza, there were no guarantees, no certainties that the favourite would prevail.

The anxiety that invaded Federer's normally expressionless, sweat-free features when he was battling to save the set, the match and his aura, spoke far more eloquently than his post-match dismissal of the crisis as a passing danger – or even proof that he still has a fifth gear.

"Four or five sets, what's the difference really?" he said, with mock flippancy. "Doesn't matter if you win in straight or in five. Just keep on moving on in the draw."

Federer's concerns here were real enough – and not dissimilar to those that consumed him on Centre Court at Wimbledon last July, when the then world No60, Colombia's Alejandro Falla, took the first two sets in a first-round match that also jangled the nerves. 

Then, Federer slowly recovered his poise to win in five sets.

Here, although he would not agree, he betrayed the sort of fear he has induced in others. It was not just the prospect of defeat, coming after some wayward performances last year, that reduced him to a toiling mortal. It was the excellence of his opponent. Nobody has a divine right to rule, not even a tennis god.

"He's a great player," Federer said of Simon. "Matches against him don't come easy. It's my first win against him [in three attempts]; they always go the distance. Hopefully I don't play him any more. I really enjoyed myself out here tonight. I wasn't playing poorly to lose the third and fourth set – Gilles really took it to me. Today I got lucky and I'm happy I'm still in the tournament."

A match that should have been a straight set win, turned into a real nail-biter. 

As a fan I prefer these kinds of matches to come in the second week of the tournament not so early in the first.  It becomes a little to close for comfort.

The match got so tense at one point that I admit to taking a peek at the end result on the Australian Open website (the benefit and curse of living in north America) to see if Federer makes it through.

My frazzled nerves just couldn't take it this early in the tournament.

Even though there were a few scary moments as a long time fan I also still held on to the hope and faith in Federer's abilities to pull him through.

And once again I was glad and extremely relieved when they did.

I must give some credit to Fed's French opponent though, because despite what Federer said in his post-match interview his level of play dipped in the 3rd and 4th set allowing Simon to relax and start to play better.

But a win is a win, and perhaps this will serve as a good test for the difficulties he will no doubt face as the tournament goes on.

Though for my own sake as well as his I'm hoping for an easy 3 setter next round.

Congrats Roger on gritting it out and proving once again why you are the best! :).

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