Roger Federer shines as big guns march into round two
World No2 makes stunning start in Melbourne as Djokovic, Roddick and Murray all reach second round
If there was any doubt about which men dominated the Australian Open draw before the tournament got under way, there was a handy reminder in the first round.
Because the bleary-eyed admirers of the best half dozen men -all of them European -were able to enjoy a clutch of dominating performances during the opening two days Down Under.
In the top section -the Nadal-Soderling-Murray stranglehold -the crowds had barely applied the sunscreen before Rafael Nadal had forced Marcos Daniel into retirement 6-0 5-0 with a knee injury, and Andy Murray had eliminated Karol Beck 6-3 6-1 4-2 – a shoulder problem for this victim.
Before the fans had stretched their legs and refreshed the tinnies, Robin Soderling had beaten Potito Starace into submission, 6-4 6-2 6-2. Even Marin Cilic -who hasn’t won more than one match in a tournament since the first week of August 2010 and went out in the first round of Chennai a fortnight ago -had buttoned up Donald Young, 6-3 6-2 6-1.
And if there were any worries about the shape of Juan MartÃƒÂn del Potro after he fell in the second round in Sydney, they were also put to bed by an easy win over Dudi Sela, 7-6 6-4 6-4.
The only minor tremor to disturb the composure of the Melbourne spectators came from the early exit of Ernests Gulbis -so often threatening to break the top ranks with his multitudinous talents yet so often falling to unexpected opponents.
A rather bigger tremor came from a match that reverberated around the grounds well into the early hours of the morning on the second day of this particular Major but, in this case, it surprised no-one.
The match between Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian had jumped off the page from the moment the draw was made. It involved a rematch between the pair of 29-year-olds who had played one of the most memorable matches ever seen in Melbourne in the quarter-finals of 2005. That one went to five sets -10-8 in the fifth -before Hewitt lost to Marat Safin in the final.
The 2011 rerun also went to five sets and was nip and tuck from start to finish. They alternated sets, had break points aplenty and the Argentine led by a break in the fifth before Hewitt broke back to level at 5-5. But in the 16th game, Nalbandian wove a certain kind of magic as the clock ticked past 1am and sealed the match with the sweetest of cross-court lobs, 3-6 6-4 3-6 7-6 9-7.
The Argentine’s loss to David Ferrer in Auckland suggested a lack of stamina, but this must have dispelled those doubts. The barrel-chested, intense-eyed, twinkle-toed Nalbandian returns to delight another day, and clearly relished the fight ahead. “I can’t talk, I’m too tired!” he said. “But I have a day off tomorrow -or [smiling] today. I am going to do all the things necessary to try to recover, to be ready.”
If the top men in the top half of the draw looked resilient, the bottom half looked positively bullish.
Novak Djokovic played the wolf against the useful Marcel Granollers: it was like taking a lamb to the slaughter, 6-1 6-3 6-1. The match also confirmed, in a mature combination of elegance, power and focus, that the Serb must be considered one of the favourites for the title.
Tomas Berdych, a man new to the top 10 but whose outstanding early 2010 season fizzled out in the autumn and winter, burst back on the Melbourne hard courts to win for the loss of just six games. Andy Roddick lost just five and, in a welcome return of his blistering power game, so did Fernando Verdasco.
The Spaniard has suffered a dreadful falling off of confidence in the last few months, compounded by a first-round loss in Brisbane last week. But this was more like the Verdasco who came so close to taking out Nadal on Rod Laver court in 2009.
He now meets the talented Janko Tipsarevic, also an easy winner, in what has the makings of one of the matches of round two. If Verdasco wins, the draw ahead beckons enticingly now that it no longer contains Nikolay Davydenko, who was a surprising loser in straight sets.
The best, though, did not come last but -in the form of the current champion -was the first man on Rod Laver.
The superlatives that have battered the airwaves since Roger Federer shook hands with his hapless opponent have yet to die down. Even the often-grudging Mats Wilander resorted to comparisons that he could never substantiate. “That was the best set of tennis I have ever seen,” he said.
Federer played Lukas Lacko, a big man with a big game and a big loose-limbed body. Only a fortnight ago, he bageled a below-par Nadal in a very close contest in Doha and certainly showed no sign of nerves or shortage of confidence for his big moment on the centre stage.
But Federer, this year sporting a neutral palette of white and grey, wore gold around his forehead that carried more than a suggestion of an already-crowned king.
Federer’s retooled shots, delivered with burgeoning confidence, were straight away on show: the wide, sliced serve; the kicker; the down-the-line backhand. Within 22 minutes, he was 6-1 to the good despite some solid attacking tennis from Lacko.
Already, this was clearly something special. Wilander again: “There is something different about FedererÃ¢â‚¬Â¦simply sublime tennis, outrageous.”
Federer immediately broke twice more but Lacko, enjoying the ride, correctly challenged a couple of long drives from Federer to win his only game of the second set.
The pitch-perfect Swiss, now pushing things along even faster, made a few careless errors in the third set and missed a couple of break point chances. To Lacko’s credit, too, he did not let his standard drop from beginning to end. But that end came in an hour and 20 minutes, 6-3.
The commentary team summed it up, for once, pretty succinctly: “He’s making one heck of a point here, and 15,000 are watching and drooling.”
The match recorded Federer’s 27th win in his 29 matches since Flushing Meadows. It also reaffirmed the desire for the game and for winning that shone out of his matches at the World Tour Finals.
He has turned the clock back to some of his finest tennis. Whether he can turn the body clock back to its mid-20s will be the test. If he keeps winning matches with such ease -and his next one against another straight sets winner, Gilles Simon will be a bigger test -then the answer is probably yes.