Madrid Masters 2011: Federer resists LÃƒÂ³pez onslaught
Roger Federer had to find his finest tennis to hold off the on-fire Spaniard Feliciano LÃƒÂ³pez
There were questions aplenty as the top four seeds made their first appearances at the Madrid Masters.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had contested the title in the last two Madrid finals. Would they meet -for the 24th time in their rivalry -in the semi-finals?
Could Federer, or anyone else, halt Nadal’s match-winning streak on clay -34 and counting?
When would Novak Djokovic’s unbeaten 2011 run -standing at 27 prior to Madrid -be halted?
And what about the fitness of 2008 winner, Andy Murray, back on court after missing Barcelona with an elbow injury?
By the end of the day, however, the questions were all about another man, a Spaniard who had spent much of the last nine years hovering between 25 and 40 in the rankings, who had caused many upsets in his career but who suffered from the blight of inconsistency: Feliciano LÃƒÂ³pez.
The arrival of a new coach in his box in 2009 had already wrought some new confidence in LÃƒÂ³pez. Last year, he won the Johannesburg title and beat Nadal on the grass of Queens.
This year, he took Djokovic to three sets both in Dubai and then in the final of Belgrade a few days ago. And he had, in Madrid, taken out the remarkable new talent, Milos Raonic, in a high-quality first-round match in three sets.
But few expected the display of tennis he served up to Federer.
The conditions on the Manolo Santana court, combined with the Madrid altitude, provide the kind of fast surface that suits both men. Federer is never happier than when in offensive mode and LÃƒÂ³pez is that rare thing, a Spanish serve-and-volley exponent -big, strong, left-handed.
So they started with all guns blazing. In the sixth game, for example, Federer gained a break point at 40-30 but had it snatched away by three successive LÃƒÂ³pez aces.
Federer finally broke through in the eighth game to go 5-3 and serve for the set. A LÃƒÂ³pez of old would have crumpled at such a moment with an over-anxious backhand or volley, but not this time. He went on the attack, rushed the net and converted a break point with relish.
With two strong service games to follow, they headed to a nail-biting tie-break.
In turn, each faced set points and in turn each produced aces to save them: Federer notched up 11 in this set alone. And so it continued to 13 points apiece, and Federer gained the first point against serve since the opening half dozen points: The set was his.
If the gripped audience thought they could settle back into their seats, they were soon forced to the very edge again.
The quality of the tennis continued to rise, with the winners count by the midway stage of the set reaching 37 for Federer and 27 for LÃƒÂ³pez, greatly outnumbering the unforced error count.
The two intensely-focused 29-year-olds drew on reservoirs of experience and skill to probe and test at every turn. Aces powered down, volleys found their marks -20 out of 24 by the end of this set from Federer -and their single-handed backhands whipped from corner to corner.
Then at 4-5, Federer missed an easy overhead, hit a forehand long and suddenly had a set point against him. LÃƒÂ³pez went for it but missed, and the set headed to another tie-breaker. This one, though, was all LÃƒÂ³pez.
It was as though the Magic Box had waved its wand over his racket, as he fired winner after winner to go 5-0 up: Federer never saw a ball. The crowd could barely contain their joy as LÃƒÂ³pez sealed the set for the loss of just one point. LÃƒÂ³pez had, indeed, won 100 percent of points on his first serve throughout the set.
Federer continued to look composed as they headed into set three. Perhaps he thought LÃƒÂ³pez would begin to run out of steam as two hours clicked over.
For LÃƒÂ³pez was playing his 11th match in a fortnight, a run that comprised 24 sets, seven of them tie-breakers. He had now played two more sets, also tie-breakers. However, Federer was soon disabused. In the sixth game, he had four break point chances but LÃƒÂ³pez continued to deliver -10 aces in this final set.
So, inevitably, they headed to 6-6. Federer had held his serve the more securely throughout the set, yet it was LÃƒÂ³pez who leapt to a 5-2 lead with a sequence of audacious winners from backhand, forehand and serve.
This would surely be LÃƒÂ³pez’s moment in a Spanish spotlight so often shone on Nadal or on LÃƒÂ³pez’s hitting partner, Fernando Verdasco, who was living every point with his friend from the sidelines.
But one crucial point determined the result, a missed overhead by LÃƒÂ³pez -the ball lost in the floodlights. It would have brought up four match points, but all he could do was smile in disbelief.
Federer drew level, only to concede a match point with a backhand error. He saved it with his 25th ace of the match -the most aces he has hit on clay or in any non-Grand Slam event -and took the set, 9-7.
The stats told the story of the match and just how close it had been. Both men averaged almost 70 percent on first serves, including 48 aces: LÃƒÂ³pez hit just one double fault. They managed only five and six break points each and were able to convert only one apiece -in 39 games.
Yet even in this tense cauldron, there was sportsmanship to relish: marks scuffed out when a line call was wrong; hands lifted in thanks or apology; each waiting for the other at changes of end; smiles at errors and winners alike.
It was a match that made the day’s other encounters pale into insignificance: Djokovic and Nadal did continue their unbroken runs; Murray did overcome Simon; Robin Soderling and Tomas Berdych did advance as their seedings demanded.
But the man of the day -with due credit to the quality and motivation of Federer -was LÃƒÂ³pez. He has surely never played better or with greater self-belief, and though the result will be a hard one to take, it suggests another late arrival at the top table by a man still passionate about his tennis in his 30th year.