First, Federer was proving to be in sharp shape, winning his first two matches for the loss of seven games and eight games respectively in a total of two and a half hours. Against the huge serving of the No36 ranked Sam Querrey in Round 2, he made just 10 errors to 32 winners. And that begged the question: Could he contain the even bigger serving of Groth?
For the Aussie was on record with the biggest non-main-tour serve, a 163mph bomb. A late-developer, he was close to a career high ranking of 66 and had already knocked out the No31 seed, Jack Sock.
He opened proceedings with a 142mph ace to gasps from the packed Centre Court, but it didn’t stop there. In his second service game, he hit one at 147mph, yet Federer looked cool, calm and collected for a reason.
The Swiss has a knack with big servers—not just Querrey here on Thursday, but against the man generally regarded as the most consistently big server on the tour, John Isner. Only once has the American come off the better against Federer, and after an initial flurry of aces, it looked as though Federer was going to master the Groth serve, too.
Of course, Federer is no mean server himself, and though serving second, he was rock solid, making three love holds and dropping just five points in the set.
But could he break down the Groth serve? The answer came sooner than expected, in the fifth game. Federer read and blocked back two for outright winners. Soon it was deuce, then break point, then three more of each and, sure enough, the break. After 30 minutes, Federer led, 6-4. And the Federer stats? Twelve winners, two errors.
The second set was almost identical, except that Federer broke immediately, helped by a double fault from Groth and then another blistering return-of-serve winning forehand. Groth would hold to love in his next two games, but it was to no avail. Federer dropped just three points on serve and had another set, 6-4.
All through this first-strike, fast-and-furious drama of split-second reactions and sprints to the net, the oh-so-familiar Aussie chorus tried time and again to intervene with chants and cheers. But this is Wimbledon, this was Centre Court, and their man was playing the most revered player at the All England Club. A few shouts of ‘quiet’ and ‘sit down’, and the intervention of a steward, and their wings were clipped.
For those who paused to take breath between the quick-fire shot-making, there was another unusual sight: The big Australian had a single-handed backhand, and he began to use it to great effect with some crafty short sliced returns that drew a few key errors from the ‘chip-and-charge’ master par excellence.
Not until 4-4 did Federer lose more than one point on serve, and then held to 30. Now though he passed up a chance of two break points that could have tidied up the match with another 6-4 set. This time, the Australian timed his aces to perfection, cranking up to over 140mph time and again. He held, and they headed to a tie-break.
It required just one blink from Federer, his only double fault of the match, to give Groth the mini break, and the Australian served out, 7-6(5).
The Swiss, though, was still as cool as a cucumber, and with reason. Groth was stacking up the winners, 40 of them so far to only 14 errors, but Federer knew he was doing even better: 43 winners to only six errors… and another half hour and a final 6-2 set, and he had made only two more errors, broken twice, and headed off to finish his work for the day.
Federer is one of the few players to arrive in the media within a scant half hour, though is surely no new question under the sun. Reason, perhaps, why the first 10 of 11 questions he faced had nothing to do with his match.
First: “Which was more memorable for fans, your 2008 final against Rafa or last year’s against Novak?”
“Well, for the Novak fans, the one last year, and for Rafa fans the one in 2008. [smiling] My fans probably want to forget both.”
And what did he think about the Venus-and-Serena rivalry, how did his contentment off court after his tennis, and why doesn’t he like Hawkeye—“It’s funny [the commentators] say that. That’s why you have to be careful about something when it’s new. That sometimes sticks with people a bit too long.”
He revealed how nervous he had been around mentor Stefan Edberg when they first joined forces: “When you spend time with someone you’ve looked up to your entire life, it’s a bit awkward in the beginning. You’re not quite sure what you’re allowed to ask, what you’re allowed to say. I think those fears are somewhat gone, even though every time he steps into the house, I still can’t believe it quite, so it’s very cool.”
Finally came a question about playing Groth: “The only thing I really have to change is my returning. The rest, the service games, I can control them myself. Once the return is played, then it’s about reaction, especially when he’s serve volleying.”
Sounds so easy, but the stats showed that it had required Federer’s sharpest tennis thus far. He will be called upon to produce a different package entirely against his next opponent, the No20 seed Roberto Bautista Agut—and the Spaniard also made only eight errors in beating a qualifier, 7-6(4), 6-0, 6-1.
But since he won his first title here in 2003, Federer has only once lost before the fourth round, in 2013. And with this kind of form and confidence, don’t be surprised if he makes his 13th quarter-final here, too.
Elsewhere, the rich vein of form of No23 seed Ivo Karlovic continued to yield results. He hit 41 aces en route to beating No13 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-6(3), 4-6, 7-6(2), 7-6(9). It made the third match in a row that Karlovic had hit 40 aces in a match.
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