French Open 2015: Federer builds head of steam in draw of fans, foes and Frenchman

Roger Federer reaches the fourth round of the French Open for the 11th year in a row with win over Damir Dzumhur

Not for the first time, and probably not the last, Roger Federer was about to play a man he had not met before.

After more than 15 years on the pro tour, and now playing in his 62nd consecutive Major, there have been countless days like this.

Often, of late, those new opponents have not only been new faces for the 33-year-old Federer but also, because of the age difference between himself and the next generation of players making their way up the rankings, also fans who watched the Swiss during his near-unbeatable heyday.

Last year, in the second round here, the new face was a 21-year-old Diego Schwartzman who had yet to break into the top 100. His bio now claims that match as his best tennis memory, though he lost it in 100 minutes.

Ten years ago, when Federer was around the same age as his latest ‘new face’ Damir Dzumhur is today, the world No1 would claim 11 titles in the space of 12 months, and another dozen the next year. And from his birthplace in war-torn Sarajavo, Dzumhur watched both Federer and Pat Rafter in admiration, studying political science at his local university alongside his tennis training.

He recalled: “I remember when I played a tournament—was it under-12 or under-10?—I watched him playing semis I think at Wimbledon with [Andy] Roddick. That was the first time I was cheering for him. Since then he’s my idol. So I remember him since I was 10 or 11, and now I have this opportunity to play against him.”

Federer played Roddick on the way to his first three Wimbledon titles, and the first was indeed in the semis in 2003, but the 32-year-old American retired almost three years ago. Little wonder, then, that Dzumhur could not believe his luck on France’s biggest stage:

“Yes, probably the biggest player ever in tennis, and I’m really glad that I have the chance to play with him. That is probably the dream of every young player who’s coming, to play him, and I have this opportunity now in Roland Garros.”

Dzumhur is the first Bosnian man to play in a Major, and at this first attempt he acquitted himself well: a third-round run in Australia this year. He also reached his first tour semi-final this year in Casablanca alongside a couple of strong Challenger runs. Now ranked 88 compared with 131 a year ago, he had plenty of talent, and nothing to lose—a dangerous combination against any player.

And Dzumhur came out of the blocks at full steam, quickly holding and then drawing a sequence of errors from Federer to earn a break point. He could not convert it, but won six points in a row to have the Swiss in trouble again.

Certainly Federer was taking time to find his range, but suddenly it clicked, and he pounded two forehand winners to break. His game continued to flow through serve, 4-2, and then again with a couple of aces and a volley for 5-3. After 32 minutes, Federer had served out the set to love, 6-4.

Already the winner-to-error ratio was positive for both men, and that would continue. Federer made a quick break and survived 15-40 in the second game for 2-0. He also squeezed by another break point in the fourth as Dzumhur plied him with drop shots and passing shots.

But the Swiss looked, by and large, entirely comfortable with what came at him—moving well, serving well, and alternating net plays and strong baseline rallies at whim. He drew a growing number of errors from Dzumhur and another break, but the Bosnian was not put off, and he thwarted Federer’s attempt to serve it out with a break back. Stung into action, though, Federer broke again with a deft backhand flick, 6-3.

The match was 65 minutes old, and would last just another 23, as Dzumhur failed to stem the tide. Federer raced out the 6-2 victor having won 24 points at the net and made 38 winners to just 22 errors. But to the young player’s credit, he had made 26 winners to 24 errors, as he noted afterwards:

“Well he knows how to hit every shot perfectly. Some of the points we really played good; I played good also. Overall I’m really happy with my game. I have more winners than unforced errors in the whole match. So I didn’t play bad. He was just really good today.”

And what was it like to play his idol?

“I was always saying that he’s the best tennis player for me, and today he showed why… I was warming up and I was still not believing that I’m playing Roger Federer. Really I was so strange feeling, like I’m dreaming. But then suddenly I switched when I started to play. Most important thing was that I started to serve good in the first set. Then was easier to play with him.”

But it’s Federer who reaches the stage at which he lost here last year, and he now faces men better described as rivals—though most are fans, too. Looming particularly large was his next opponent, the winner between home super-star Gael Monfils and the fast-improving South American, Pablo Cuevas.

Both had recently played Federer, and while Cuevas had lost—albeit via two matches featuring tie-breaks—Monfils had enjoyed a lot of success. In a marathon quarter-final five-setter last autumn at the US Open, Monfils had match points, and he went on to win both subsequent matches on clay. The last, indeed, was a straight-sets win at the Monte-Carlo Masters.

Naturally, this being Paris, Federer was asked about the prospect of a possible super-Sunday face-off with the entertaining Frenchman.

“I’m always happy to play Gaël. He’s in Paris, he’s at home. He’s very strong. He loves these kinds of matches. So I know the danger. I know his performance. I know how much capability he has. I really would like to see him accomplish more. If we get to play again here, I hope it will be a good match. [Smiling] I hope I’ll win, I’m not here to lose when I play him, right?”

But beyond Monfils lies another formidable foe who has tasted victory over Federer on clay, Stan Wawrinka. The No8 seed faced no break points and hit 32 winners in beating unseeeded Steve Johnson, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. It took him just a minute longer to reach the fourth-round than had Federer, and he will now face Gilles Simon, who survived the spirited veteran Nicolas Mahut in five sets and three and three-quarter hours.

But all that French interest would extend still further into fabulous Friday. For while Monfils was losing the first set to Cuevas, there were big matches also under way in the other quarter of the bottom half. Unseeded Benoit Paire was levelling his match at a set apiece against No4 seed Tomas Berdych, and on Philippe Chatrier, No14 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga took on Pablo Andujar.

There remains only one face in this half that Federer has not met before, then—surprisingly, the 29-year-old Andujar—and several of the others have scored wins over the Swiss. But how many of them would have the chance to try their luck again, only time would tell.

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