Istanbul Open: Federer’s friendly but unfriendly start over Nieminen

Roger Federer beats Jarkko Nieminen in straight sets to reach the third round of the Istanbul Open

Roger Federer has been welcomed, on his first visit to Istanbul, like royalty. So much so that announcers, on more than one occasion, have introduced him to the waiting faithful as ‘His Majesty, Roger Federer’.

Even the super-cool Swiss has sounded a touch non-plussed by the enthusiasm: “I didn’t know that I was this popular in Turkey. I’m pretty surprised with the huge interest.”

It’s a fair bet that he did have some notion of the growing buzz on social media since he first announced his participation in the debut playing of the Istanbul Open, but after trips to 18 different countries thus far, it takes something special to surprise him.

He has, though, earned plenty of brownie points with the fans and the tournament: an exho on the Bosphorus; the donation of a racket for charity at the players’ party; a tennis clinic with local kids on Centre Court… the list has grown by the day.

So small wonder that the arena at the Koza World of Sports was full for the first time this week, and little wonder that the welcome for ‘His Majesty’ was riotous.

But spare a thought for the man who had to stride into onto court ahead of Federer, Jarkko Nieminen.

As if the overwhelming support for super-star Federer was not daunting enough, Nieminen faced a 14-0 deficit built up over 12 years on the professional tour. Only once since their first match in Moscow in 2002 had he even won a set. But then Andreas Seppi had also won only one set in 10 losses to Federer before this year’s Australian Open—where he scored his first win over the Swiss in one of the upsets of the tournament.

But perhaps tougher for Federer and Nieminen was that the two men are friends from way back, separated by just a fortnight in age. They have a similarly calm and courteous way about them, and have shared time on the ATP Players Council.

Of course their careers have taken rather contrasting paths—the Swiss now with 84 titles, the Finn with just two—but while Nieminen is currently ranked only 71, he has been as high as 13.

The first game, though, must have felt like “dejà vu all over again” for the Finn. Federer made an attacking backhand drive from mid-court, two drop-shot-lob winners, and broke to 15—and all this against one of his oldest friends. Who would want to be his enemy?

In the blink of an eye, after a hold of serve, Federer was 2-0. Nieminen, though, is a wily campaigner, and he had already bedded into the Istanbul clay with a good win over local favourite, Marsel Ilhan, and it showed in a nice love hold of serve from the left-handed Finn. But the games came and went at high speed, with barely a rally over five strokes.

Federer glided to another break with a silky off-forehand followed by a ghost in for a winning off-drop-shot winner.

Another love hold courtesy of some precision serving, and it was 5-1. Federer had missed only one first serve and won points on 12 of the 14 that hit the mark.

So cool in mint green, so calm after a couple of casual errors on Nieminen’s serve, but so collected that he served his way to the set, 6-2, in 20 minutes. He did not even pause for umpire Layani to check one of his first serves, already into his second-serve motion before the smiling ‘Mo’ had regained his seat.

Nieminen was not fazed, though, despite the familiar scenario in which he found himself, and the second set was considerably closer. He opened with a hold and, looking more settled and more aggressive, ventured to the net for a couple of tidy put-aways and a love hold for 2-1.

And so the match raced by: a love hold from Federer, a hold to 15 from Nieminen. The Swiss clockwork lost a touch of its perfection as his first serve briefly dropped to 50 per cent—not that he was in the mood to help out his friend too much: Federer had still dropped only three points on 15 serves.

Then at 3-3, in the blink of an eye and the sweep of forehand, Federer smashed a winner for break point. But he could not convert it, nor a second one, and Nieminen kept his hopes alive. But would Federer ever waver on serve? Three aces in the next game said not.

The difference in their serving stats spoke volumes: Federer was 12 for 12 on first serve, Nieminen 19 from 25, and having to produce growing numbers of good deliveries to stay in the race. He faced down another break point at 5-5, and survived a second when a fan yelled out mid-point. But a sequence of cracking forehands from Federer grabbed a third chance and the break, and with serving figures like his, the match was as good as over.

Time then for Mr Entertainer to bring the fans to their feet. Four great serves, three crisp volley winners, a couple of show-stopping backhand touches, and Federer had won with a flourish, 7-5, in precisely one hour.

The Swiss star has certainly delivered since he arrived in Istanbul, and now an opening win has also given fans the opportunity of another Federer match come Friday. Before that, though, he plans some me-time.

“Tomorrow I have a day off and I will enjoy a sightseeing trip by boat on the Bosphorus to see some more of this beautiful city.”

He will next take on Daniel Gimeno-Traver, the No62-ranked Spaniard who beat Mikhail Kukushkin, 6-3, 6-3.

But one suspects that, for Istanbul, only the perfect conclusion will do: Federer’s first clay title in three years. And one also suspects that Nieminen would have no problem with that at all.

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