Roger Federer had not played a competitive match since his early and unexpected loss in the fourth round of the US Open at the end of August.
Unexpected, because the loss came to a man who Federer had beaten in all 10 previous matches, Tommy Robredo, and unexpected because the Swiss managed to converted only two out of 16 break points. It also marked the second time in as many Grand Slams that he had failed to reach the quarter-finals after reaching the previous 36.
With more early losses, a couple of back injuries and just one title, the Halle 250, for the season, he afterwards tried to put his finger on the problem:
“[Confidence] takes care of all the things you don’t usually think about, you know. I just think it’s been a difficult last three months.”
While many questioned his decision to bypass the rest of the Asian swing in the run-up to the Shanghai Masters, he explained his thinking:
“I took some time off, went back to Switzerland, spent some time with my family. Just really took it easy, but also did some workouts to stay in shape. I’ve been working really hard for many, many months now, making sure I do everything absolutely correctly…
“Eventually I started preparing…doing a lot of fitness with Pierre Paganini, then I went to Dubai and trained there for about two weeks.”
So his return was keenly watched, and not just by critics and fans. In the front row sat the new No1, Rafael Nadal, the No15-ranked Fabio Fognini and Federer’s good friend and No11 seed, Tommy Haas.
The Swiss man’s opener was certainly a test of his form and his confidence. Indeed, it had eerie echoes of that Robredo match. Andreas Seppi had lost all nine of their previous matches but was, like Robredo, enjoying a surge in his rankings after more than a decade on the tour. The Italian hit a career-high 18 at the start of the year—Robredo is ranked 18 now—and for Seppi’s meeting with Federer he was at 22—the same as Robredo had been in the US Open.
The very first game began with a big serve and a forehand winner, and it closed with a long forehand exchange—both won by Federer. But Seppi was already showing glimpses of the aggressive form that has backed his recent rise in the rankings.
He held serve easily, and set a terrific pace that allowed Federer no chance to find any rhythm after six weeks away from the heat of battle.
Seppi had the Swiss running every which way with some huge forehands and a couple of winning drop shots in the third game. Federer survived a break point, but he started to look even more vulnerable on his next serve, double faulting and twice making off-forehand errors to bring up two more break points. Another double fault, to a chorus of gasps, handed the advantage to Seppi, 3-2.
The gasps turned to cheers as Federer went on the attack on the Seppi serve to break straight back, but his own serve was still drifting below 50 percent, and a poor volley error followed by two wayward forehands brought up break point again. Despite facing a second, he held off the challenge.
Locked at 4-4, Federer again went down, 0-30, courtesy of net-cord from Seppi, but two timely aces from the Swiss held off the threat and he turned the attack onto the Seppi serve, racing into the net at every opportunity.
The furious, intense pace of the opening 40 minutes slowed only in the very last rally of the set in a vivid change of tactics by Federer on break point. A long, probing rally from the baseline, exchanging backhands and forehands into the corners, finally drew an error from Seppi: Federer led by a set, 6-4.
The Swiss carried his momentum into the first game of the second set with a strong love hold finished by a soft drop volley winner. He continued with the same tactic to break the Seppi rhythm, volleying when possible, and dropping balls short to draw frantic errors from the Italian. The Swiss broke, 2-0, and began to find a groove on his defence, too, to fend off 0-30 in the third game.
The confidence that comes from resisting an onslaught to take a strong lead became clear as the match accelerated to a conclusion. Federer took a 4-1 lead after producing two forehand winners, one a running bullet down the line, the other a cross-court looping whip.
Seppi did not back off, though, held to love in the eighth and then drew a couple of rash errors from Federer to take a 0-30 lead in the ninth. Federer replied with a second-serve ace, and completed his 10th win over the Italian, 6-3.
Things don’t get any easier for the Swiss. He next faces Gael Monfils, the unpredictable, athletic and hugely talented Frenchman who is also returning to world-class form after dropping out of the top 100 following injury earlier this year.
And there is a lot on the line for Federer in Shanghai, where he still needs to pick points in his quest to qualify for the World Tour Finals for a 12th consecutive year.
The quest is all the more fascinating because Federer’s friend and compatriot, Stanislas Wawrinka, is hot on his tail at No8 in the race and just 85 points behind him. Wawrinka is not only looking to qualify for his first season finale but to overtake Federer as the top-ranked Swiss for the first time in his career.
Wawrinka, who reached his first US Open semi-final last month and his second ever Masters final in Madrid, also had a tough opener in Shanghai against the 20-ranked, big-hitting Kevin Anderson. And although Wawrinka won the first set, he was taken to a two hour, 16 minute three setter that was decided only by a final tie-break, 7-5 in the Swiss man’s favour.
So Federer and Wawrinka remain locked together at Nos 7 and 8 in the rankings but still trailing the two big men, Juan Martin del Potro and Tomas Berdych, at Nos 5 and 6: They too won their opening matches.
The three men already locked in for London, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer, also consolidated their places in Shanghai with comfortable straight-set wins, while the withdrawal from London of No3 Andy Murray leaves an extra spot up for grabs.
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