Halle 2015: Seven-time champ Roger Federer faces down defeat in thriller

Roger Federer recovers from 5-3 down in a tiebreak to beat Philipp Kohlschreiber in the first round of the Gerry Weber Open in Halle

Half of Roger Federer’s meetings against old friend Philipp Kohlschreiber had been played on grass.

One of them was at Wimbledon, in 2009, and three were at Halle—in Germany. Each and every time, Federer had won against his fellow single-hander: Indeed every time in their eight meetings Federer had won, and only once had Kohlschreiber even managed to win a set.

But that did not look like the back-story when seven-time Halle champion Federer faced 2011 winner Kohlschreiber in the very first round this year.

The tournament is enjoying 500 status for the first time, and that means the 32-man draw is high quality from top to bottom, and no man has a bye in the first round. So for the world No2 and top seed to meet the 31-ranked German so soon was tough. That Kohlschreiber had played three good matches at Stuttgart already had got him into a fine groove on the grass—which is such a difficult transition from the clay, and one that Federer bypassed. Perhaps that was the reason for so many slip-ups, literally. The sure-footed Swiss slipped over in each set, and afterwards confessed that it shook up his confidence in his footing.

But Federer tops the polls by almost every measure when it comes to grass: most match-wins, most titles, best performance index in the Open era. This was his 13th time in Halle, a place he loves so much that he has a lifetime contract with the tournament.

And he is loved just as much in return: That he played a German may have given the locals pause for thought, but when they saw the prospect of losing their champion before he had barely begun, they cheered every single point that Federer won.

For having scored the first break in the opening set, the Swiss was eventually forced to save two set points in the tie-break before edging it 7-6(8). He was having to play at a high level, and he hit far more winners than errors through the set, but Kohlschreiber was playing superb tennis, mixing up slice, angle and touch with some great backhand winners and some strong serving.

That paid off in the second set as a tetchy Federer became progressively more irritated by some overrules on line calls: All square in the second set, he became engrossed in a discussion with the umpire, lost focus, sprayed errors, and gave up a costly break. Kohlschreiber levelled, 6-3.

The German continued to play fine tennis, but Federer refocused to stay with him. The German saved two match points in the ninth game of the decider and went 3-2 in the final tie-break. Federer faced an untimely and very tricky net-cord to go down one more point, but Kohlschreiber could not quite press home a 5-3 advantage, even serving at 5-4. The result was on a knife-edge, but just as on every previous occasion, the nod went to Federer, after 2hrs 11mins, 7-6(5).

Federer has reached the final in his past nine Halle appearances, and he will count himself fortunate to have taken one step towards another final. But it is only one step in a difficult draw that, in his next match, offers up either Ernests Gulbis or Sergiy Stakhovsky, both of whom have beaten him before—the latter, famously, at Wimbledon in the second round in 2013.

Elsewhere, another German did advance, Dustin Brown, who hit 15 aces to beat Andreas Haider-Maurer, 7-5, 6-2, in an altogether smarter hour and a quarter.

The charismatic 30-year-old Brown, whose game suits grass better than any surface, goes on to meet No2 seed Kei Nishikori or Dominic Thiem, who is at a career-high ranking of 29 this week.

Florian Mayer beat fellow German Jan-Lennard Struff, 6-2, 0-6, 7-6(4).

After taking to the grass at Stuttgart last week, the exciting teenager Alexander Zverev made his debut in Halle, beating veteran Jarkko Nieminen, 6-4, 6-4, in 70 minutes. Meanwhile, fellow teenage rising star, Borna Coric, won his first ever grass-court match against Donald Young, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3. Both youngsters are also at career highs: Zverev at 81 and Coric at 41.

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