Roger Federer breaks new ground with eighth Halle win and 15th grass title

Roger Federer beats Andreas Seppi in straight sets to win his eighth Halle title

There were times, in Roger Federer’s first match in defence of his Halle title, that it looked as though he may not make it even as far as the second round.

Philipp Kohlschreiber played exceptionally well, and Federer struggled to contain the variety, angle, spin and pace of his German friend. He also, unusually, struggled to keep his footing, and the elegant Swiss ended up more than once in a less-than-elegant heap on the greasy turf.

Federer survived, just, from 3-5 down in the final-set tie-breaker: He kept alive hopes of an eighth title from his 13th appearance at the small and perfect-formed tournament in rural Germany. That he had not fallen short of the quarter-finals for the first time in those 13 visits was a relief to the Gerry Weber Open but even more so to the thousands of Federer followers who had travelled the globe to see him.

More relief came in a straight-set win against Ernests Gulbis, though a brief consultation with the doctor during the match set tongues wagging. It was, he said afterwards, just pain-killers for a few aches and pains picked up by the rigours of grass tennis. He was not alone in that: players across Europe have talked of the challenges of switching from high-bouncing clay to low-skidding grass—and even the man with the best record on the slick turf was not immune, it seems.

A day off and Federer was quick to banish concerns, quick to score a 6-0 opening set over Florian Mayer, and quick to reach the Halle semis for the 11th time.

Further concerns that the huge-serving Ivo Karlovic might cause an upset—the Croat had set an ace record of 45 in his previous match—were also dismissed by the best Federer so far, the one who showed why he has won not just seven titles here but seven more at Wimbledon. No slips now, just fast footwork, low flying forehands, kick serves and nimble net-work. Perhaps more important still, he demonstrated the focus and aggression to win two tie-breaks against the most formidable server in the world.

So Federer had fulfilled most of his Halle brief: his 10th consecutive final, his 20th grass final, his 130th career final—all managed with perfect Swiss timing and accuracy.

Just one more hurdle remained, a fellow 30-something and friend, Andreas Seppi. And though currently ranked 45, the Italina had been considerably higher, had enjoyed two truncated matches in the quarters and semis when opponents retired and, above all, had beaten Federer for the first time in 11 meetings in the third round of the Australian Open.

Seppi, in full flow, can hit with flat power, with variety and with grass-hugging slice. And despite Federer’s increasing form this week, and his reputation as the best on grass, Seppi was up for a battle of the highest quality.

There was nothing between them for the first six games, when Seppi faced the first deuce of the match. The rain began to fall, the roof was closed, and they kicked their heels while the dampness evaporated enough to make the grass safe.

Seppi then showed impressive focus to hold serve with a backhand winner down the line. In fact it would be Federer who faced the first break point, so good and so aggressive was Seppi’s returning. Twice he fired a return at Federer’s feet to draw the error, but the Swiss was already putting together his strongest serving performance of the week. Not just that, but he timed his ace-strikes with immaculate timing. An ace, a serve-and-volley winner, and he had held.

Seppi was not done: He pummelled his ground strokes, making barely an error, pinning Federer behind the baseline, and it earned the Italian two break points. But again, with Swiss timing of the highest order, Federer delivered two aces, got a lucky net-cord, and held.

The longest rally of the match, a superb exchange of angles and spin, also went to Seppi with a fine net finish, and Federer had to produce his best tennis to hold for a tie-break shoot-out.

In Australia, Seppi had won both tie-break sets: This time, just as he had against Karlovic, Federer saved his best for last. First a forehand winner, next a volley finish, then an ace. On the dot of an hour, Federer reached 6-1 and Seppi finally buckled under the pressure with a double fault: 7-6(1).

The second set unfolded along similar lines, but with Federer’s serving growing more ‘clutch’ by the game. He began with two love holds and a 10th ace but, not to be outdone, Seppi levelled to love, 2-2.

Another fine, aggressive rally, and Seppi had a chance to break but again Federer saved break point with an ace. The threat to the Swiss was renewed in the seventh game, 0-30 to Seppi, but an ace and a serve-and-volley winner saved the day, and he fought off two deuces with two more aces and a serve-volley-volley play.

Federer was showing calmness under pressure, but he was breathing heavily, working hard. At last, he got his reward, a first break point against Seppi. It would prove to be a very big game, over nine minutes long, with strike and counter-strike, four deuces, three break points, and high-quality tennis. Seppi resisted but, a love hold from Federer later, and the Italian was back in the firing line. This time, Federer had the break to leave him serving for the match.

Appropriately enough for such a quality encounter, he finished it off, 6-4, with a huge smash from near the baseline—and the Gerry Weber Stadion erupted.

Federer had notched up 14 aces among his 36 winners, but had been thoroughly tested.

Federer retains the title he has won here for the last two years but will be rewarded more richly: 500 points instead of 250. But though welcome for the world No2, he has bigger fish fry. His object, as June turns to July, is to defend the big points he won at Wimbledon last year and, with the right form and fitness, attempt to go one step beyond the oh-so-close five-set final loss to Djokovic.

Federer will go into Wimbledon as No2 seed, and will no doubt watch the draw closely: Rafael Nadal could fall early into one of the top seeds’ paths, but Andy Murray, an equally impressive winner in Queen’s just hours after Federer’s win, will fall either to Federer or Djokovic in the semis.

Federer will hope it is not him.

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