For a start, he was one of only three champions in the draw along with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray—the trio that topped the rankings and seedings. The same three men also topped this year’s charts in both titles and match-wins.
Djokovic, Shanghai champion in 2012 and 2013, as well as winner of the Masters Cup in Shanghai in 2008, headed the field with a 68-5 win-loss record and eight titles from a run 12 straight finals dating back to his Australian Open victory.
Murray, winner in Shanghai in 2010 and 2011 and runner-up in 2012, had totted up four titles and 61 match-wins this year, and was one of only three men to beat Djokovic since Melbourne.
The only man to beat Djokovic twice in 2015, though, was Federer, champion in China last year, finalist in 2010, and winner of the Shanghai-hosted Masters Cup in 2006 and 2007. He had accumulated fives titles via 53 match-wins and eight losses this year.
He arrived in Shanghai without a competitive match in almost a month—but then that is what he had done last year when, after an opening-match scare, he did not drop another set, even against Djokovic, to win the title. So why change a winning formula?
Arguably, Federer had the easiest opening match among any of his fellow top-eight seeds—those who get a bye direct to the second round. The likes of No7 seed David Ferrer had to take on No20 Bernard Tomic; No8 seed Rafael Nadal got No21 Ivo Karlovic; the No4 seed Stan Wawrinka drew No24 Viktor Troicki.
As for the next eight seeds, some had faced higher-ranked opponents in the first round—Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had to beat Tommy Robredo while Richard Gasquet beat Gilles Muller.
Yet Federer picked up qualifier Albert Ramos-Vinolas, ranked 70, whose last main-tour win was in reaching the second round in Hamburg in July, who had won just 14 main-tour matches this year—eight of those on clay—and whose only title had come in one of six Challenger tournaments this year.
Then there was the only previous meeting between Federer and the left-handed Spaniard, which was nothing short of a trouncing, for the loss of just three games, at Wimbledon in 2012.
Federer, then, was probably the hottest favourite to reach the third round in the draw. Those with a tennis memory would rehearse his cold start and consequent near-miss this time last year in Shanghai, when he had faced and survived five match points, but that against the altogether tougher prospect of the then No25 in the world, Leonardo Mayer.
And the way Federer played in the early stages of this match—indeed through most of his match—suggested no such problem this time. An easy opening hold was followed by an eight-minute second game in which Ramos-Vinolas faced four deuces and two break points. He survived, only to see Federer hold to love in under a minute.
The Spaniard did not face another break point, though he had to fight off deuces, while Federer seemed totally secure on serve. Nevertheless they edged to a tie-break, where their serving thus far indicated a swift hold by Federer. Not a bit.
The tactics of Ramos-Vinolas were straight-forward—perhaps he had asked for tips from fellow left-hander Nadal, who has enjoyed such success over his Swiss rival. Ramos-Vinolas directed the bulk of his attack to the Federer backhand wing, and time and again opened up the forehand line for a winner.
The Spaniard’s serve, too, was smart, with multiple kicks and slices skimming away to the Federer backhand, and he found depth, pace and a high percentage of first serves to keep up the pressure on Federer.
Ramos-Vinolas got the first advantage, opened up a 5-2 lead, served big to bring up set points, and Federer hit a forehand wide to concede the set, 7-6(4).
Here was the evidence that Federer lacked match-sharpness: He struck 20 winners for 16 errors, made 12 of 16 net points, and won 23 of 26 first serves—but he lost fluidity and tightened up in the tie-break.
No matter: An hour of all-court tennis appeared to loosen the Swiss game. Still Ramos-Vinolas played full-blooded, percentage tennis, stuck to his tactics, kept his serving on target, but Federer played more offensively and, as in the first set, seemed in control. He made 12 out of 12 on his first serve, dropped only two points on his second serve, and with some athletic defence, finally broke through a dogged Ramos-Vinolas in the fifth game. He repeated in the seventh and served out the set, 6-2.
The safe money was now on a Federer charge: Ramos-Vinolas had still not worked a break point and had hit barely a third the number of Federer’s 34 winners. But Federer again began to look tight: a 40-0 opening service game went to deuce courtesy of three errors.
Then after a handful of strong serving games from each, Ramos-Vinolas all at once worked his first break chance. He boldly struck a forehand down the line to break for 5-3. He would not ‘do a Mayer’, either: Ramos-Vinolas served out his first ever top-10 win, 6-3.
On paper, it was hard to see where Federer had gone wrong: 15 aces to six by Ramos-Vinolas; 45 winners to 22; 30 errors to 26; a high percentage on serve; and an impressive 25 points from 32 net rushes—though he used the ultra-confident ‘Sabr’ move just once in the match. He even ended with seven more points overall, but come the pinch-points, his lack of match-sharpness told.
The Spaniard deserves great credit for his resilience, his tactics and his execution against some challenging tennis—especially given his last match against the Swiss. No wonder he was delighted, as he told ATPWorldTour.com: “I’m really happy to beat Roger Federer. I didn’t expect it during the match. After the second set I thought I would lose. But I played really good. I was very solid with my serve in the third set. I am very happy because it’s the most important victory for me.”
Federer’s exit now leaves the bottom half of the draw wide open to a range of men hoping to make big points from a deep run to strengthen their World Tour Finals claim. One of them is Tsonga, who beat Victor Estrella Burgos, 6-3, 6-2, to take on Ramos-Vinolas. Another is Marin Cilic, who beat fellow Croat Borna Coric, 6-1, 6-2, to reach the third round, and will next play the winner between Wawrinka and Troicki.
Also in this half and gunning for London are No6 seed Kei Nishikori and No8 seed Nadal, both of whom play their first matches tomorrow.
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