More records fall to fabulous Federer in Stockholm
Tennis fans in Sweden must think they have died and gone to heaven.
It’s the week after the conclusion of the intense Asian swing at the Shanghai Masters, and a time of rest for the top men on the tour. Ahead is the final push through Europe to the last Masters in Paris and, ultimately, the year-end jamboree in London.
Yet the beautiful, chilly city of Stockholm has not one, not two, but three of the men who expect to contest the World Tour Finals next month: home hero and world No5 Robin Soderling, Czech No6 Tomas Berdych and cream of the crop No2 Roger Federer.
The only competition for the star-studded Stockholm this week has been in the cold, cavernous Kremlin Cup in Moscow and, with the first-round loss of headliners Nikolay Davydenko, Mikhail Youzhny, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, that event has struggled to make much impact on the tennis radar.
In Stockholm, though, the Swedish Soderling was aiming to win his home title for the first time in eight attempts -his best finishes were as runner-up in 2003 and 2008. So his heart must have sunk when Federer announced, only a couple of months back, that he was adding Stockholm to his schedule.
In the event, Soderling’s chances of the title came to an abrupt end well before the expected final with Federer, in a quarter-final loss to the unseeded German Florian Mayer.
Tomas Berdych also fell in the first round and, like Soderling, he has to continue his campaign to qualify for the World Tour Finals.
So Federer, who seems effortlessly to steal the limelight wherever his goes, continued his assault on the record books and in the tennis headlines. Ten years after his only other appearance in Stockholm, he beat Taylor Dent to reach 900 matches on the tour – 12 years after his first. He’s the only active played to reach this landmark and, even more startling, he has not retired from a single one.
The next landmark, if he won his quarter-final encounter against countryman Stanislas Wawrinka, was his 50th match win for the season. That, however, was not the news.
That this would be the ninth straight year Federer had achieved 50 wins was. Only four other men in the Open era have managed it before, and with Federer still playing near the top of the game, his chances of making it 10 in a row -joint second with Stefan Edberg and Guillermo Vilas -look very good indeed.
And there’s one more target in Stockholm. Should Federer win the title, he would overtake Bjorn Borg’s tally of 64 to join Pete Sampras at fourth in the Open era.
But with his 900th match in the bag, the rest of Federer’s Stockholm targets very nearly fell apart in the all-Swiss quarter-final. The friends and joint Olympic gold medallists had played each other only six times before, and Wawrinka had managed just one win, on the clay of Monte Carlo last year. In their other meetings, Federer had not dropped a set. That all changed in Stockholm.
Wawrinka has been enjoying some of the best form of his career since joining up with coach Peter Lundgren this summer. It made this a particularly fascinating match-up, for Lundgren was Federer’s coach until 2003. It looked as though that inside knowledge would be Federer’s undoing as a stunned Stockholm crowd silently watched Wawrinka break Federer’s opening service game and rush away to a 5-1 lead.
A newly lean-and-mean Wawrinka attacked with his big serve, big forehands, and one of the best backhands -a single-handed bullet of a shot -in tennis. Federer fired forehands long, found the net, and conceded a second service game with a double fault. The first set was soon over, 6-2.
The murmur of the crowd was an apt soundtrack for the opening of the second set, too. The first two points on Federer’s serve added to his growing tally of unforced errors: one drive hit the net, the next flew a metre long to concede the break. Federer, unusually, played three metres behind the baseline while Wawrinka continued to attack, and took a 2-0 lead.
The turning point, however, could be identified in one point: the second of Federer’s second service game. He rushed the net to take a big smash, and then attacked the net again to win the game. The crowd sensed it, and Federer knew it: this match was by no means over.
Sure enough, Federer then gained his first break point, and evened the set at 2-2. He danced to the net again on his own serve to take the lead for the first time. Both men started to produce their best tennis, but Federer’s best has always been better than Wawrinka’s, and he pressured his way to a 5-3 lead to serve out the set.
The crowd began to stamp their encouragement as Federer’s game flowed. Feathered drop shots alternated with lobs, and backhand angled slices with off-forehand winners. It was an ace that finally finished off an hour and three-quarters of intriguing tennis in Federer’s favour, 6-2.
So one more record chalked up, and old friend Ivan Ljubicic in the way of a place in Federer’s 91st final and, ultimately, his 64th title.
Win or lose, it will be an attractive match between two creative all-court talents. Both men are hugely popular on the tour, but most of the fans in Stockholm will be stamping their encouragement for their favourite. They are as happy as the man himself that Federer has finally made the return to their tournament after 10 years.