Istanbul Open 2015: Roger Federer is Turkey’s debut champion with 85th title

Roger Federer beats Pablo Cuevas in two sets to win his first clay-court title since 2012 at the Istanbul Open

For Roger Federer on 2015’s clay courts, there has been one unexpected turn after another.

First, he lost in his second match at the Monte-Carlo Masters, having reached the final last year—and that after bypassing Miami for rest, recuperation and plenty of clay preparation.

Then he announced that the Rome Masters was by no means a certainty in his schedule ahead of Roland Garros—which would be his first absence from the Eternal City in a decade.

Instead, he would make a new stop on his clay tour: He would headline at the debut playing of the Istanbul Open before the Madrid Masters. Bearing in mind that Federer has only four times during his entire professional career played a non-Masters event in the run-up to the French Open, and that decision made a lot of headlines.

But then Federer had not won a clay title for three years, in Madrid in 2012, and even the keenest eye would not have predicted such tough challenges for the Swiss in Istanbul. In his second match, he took two and a half hours to beat a man he had never played before, Daniel Gimeno-Traver, 7-6, 6-7, 6-3. Then it was almost two hours against the gutsy 22-year-old, Diego Schwartzman, forcing Federer to come back from a 2-6 first set to battle through, 7-5, in the third.

There was another surprise awaiting the Swiss in the final, too: Not the expected Grigor Dimitrov but No3 seed Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay, who put the Bulgarian to the sword in straight sets. Cuevas, a clay expert, was certainly having a good year, reaching a career-high 21 and now aiming to win his second title of 2015, the fourth of his career—all the previous ones coming on clay.

As Federer acknowledged: “Cuevas is playing very, very well… I think it’s going to be a tough match. He’s obviously played a lot on clay.” In fact the man from Uruguay had won 13 from 17 clay matches.

Along the way to his 128th final, though, Federer’s a couple of new milestones came and went—no longer unusual after 17 years on the tour: his 200th clay win, and a 9,075th ace to pass Andy Roddick and take third place in the record-books.

Having started slowly and erratically against the aggressive Schwartzman, Federer this time looked focused and sharp against another man he had never played before, and earned a quick break point. At this third bite of the cherry, he converted with a cross-court backhand pass, and held for 3-0.

But Cuevas began to settle, and pressed Federer just as he had Dimitrov with some fine angled strikes down the forehand line and not a few net finishes. His backhand, like Federer’s is a one-hander, and he was also able to ring the changes on that wing with slice as well as cross-court top-spin to Federer’s high backhand.

Cuevas was quick, too, chasing down drop-shots and taking on the ball early and aggressively. Fortunately, Federer’s serve was working better than in his semi, and it dug him out of a hole in the fifth game through two deuces, and again when serving for the first set at 5-3 after a shanked backhand brought up deuce. He held to take a 6-3 lead after 33 minutes.

But this match was very far from over, as Cuevas continued to play a high and high-paced standard of tennis, pinning Federer back, and making him defend for all he was worth. Even with a medical time out for some treatment to his racket arm after the third game, Cuevas stayed competitive. More than that, he showed great self-belief to fight back from 15-40 down in the fifth game with five straight points, and then from a break down in the eighth after forcing a Federer error.

It looked as though his efforts were for nought in the next long game as Federer played three magical shots—a ghost to the net, a drop-shot from the baseline, and a pick-up from his feet for a winner at the net for three more break points. But again Cuevas found some fine shots, making deeper and more penetrating forehands to force dramatic defence and repeated errors from Federer, and won six points in a row to hold.

It would take a tie-break, and the most drama-packed game of the match. Federer summed it up afterwards: “It was crazy. I felt so unlucky and then lucky, and unlucky and lucky. I’m happy to be doing the interview now rather than still playing.”

They edged to 4-4 when Cuevas mistimed a forehand to give Federer the advantage. An ace from the Swiss and he had two match points. But two poor errors and it was 6-6. A Cuevas double fault brought another match point, but another Federer error made it 7-7. Cuevas fluffed an easy volley on set point but a return of serve onto Federer’s baseline made it 9-9, before a volley error from the Swiss gave his opponent another set point. But Federer would not be denied and pulled off a remarkable backhand dig for another match point, and this time he finished the job to an ecstatic reception.

Federer has clearly loved his Turkish adventure, and the fans have come in their thousands to cheer him on. It seemed the perfect outcome, then, that he should win the first title at this new stop on the tennis merry-go-round, his 85th title overall, his 11th on clay, his 19th different country. He was very appreciative:

“It’s been along while since I won on clay. I’ve had a wonderful week, I’ve been welcomed like someone really special. Thank you for being so nice to me. I can’t thank you enough. I hope to come back, hopefully next year—though I have to check my schedule!”

For now, he has to recover and recuperate for Madrid, where he has had success in both its blue and red clay versions.

With the withdrawal of Novak Djokovic, he is the top seed, while Andy Murray—whose final in Munich was washed out until tomorrow—is the second seed. The most prolific clay winner of his age, Rafael Nadal, then, is a dangerous No3, and he has fallen into Federer’s half.

Even before that, the Swiss has a tough route: The fearsome 20-year-old star Nick Kyrgios, finalist this weekend in Estoril, as a likely first opponent; then either Jeremy Chardy—victor over Federer in Rome last year—or John Isner in the third round. The quarters promise Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, or Estoril champion Richard Gasquet, all before Nadal or Stan Wawrinka in the semis.

But at least Federer has a first-round bye. Spare a though for Cuevas, who is straight into first-round action against one of clay’s masters, Tommy Robredo—and a win would ear him David Ferrer.

Now that is unlucky.

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