His performance in his opening match against Kei Nishikori had shaken expectations, especially as he had beaten the Japanese man twice in the last month. But neither man seemed able to time the ball well, neither could convert chances, neither hold on to their advantages—so when Nishikori did break for a second time in the second set, that was enough to take the win 7-6, 6-3.
Federer had grown increasingly edgy, increasingly uneasy, as the errors piled up, and was into press before Nishikori had even left the court.
He asserted: “I’ve been feeling fine. It’s just that practice has been a bit all over the place. Practised in Queen’s, practised on the outside courts here, then centre as well… Overall I thought I’m hitting the ball OK… I think maybe we both had a bit of nerves.”
He concluded: “It’s OK now, now that the first match is out of the way.”
It needed to be, because he had just suffered his only two-set defeat in the round robin phase of the tournament in the 16 years he had qualified. Only once had he even fallen before the knock-out stages, and that was in Shanghai in 2008 when he had a serious back problem. He had, in short, now done something he had avoided in 46 previous round-robin matches.
In truth, there had been a slip in form during 2018 after his Australian Open victory and his return to No1 via the Rotterdam title. He failed to defend on his beloved grass in Halle and Wimbledon, and was far from his best at the US Open, where he lost in pool of sweat to John Millman in the fourth round.
Now his problem was Dominic Thiem, who had also lost his opener, and the 25-year-old Austrian had won two of his three previous matches against the 37-year-old Federer. If he won this one, the writing was on the wall: Federer would exit the tournament.
And so to the rumours, which went into overdrive as soon as the Swiss cancelled his scheduled practice session at Queen’s on his off day. Was there a physical problem?
In the background, there also swirled reports and quotes about his preferential treatment by some tournaments. Former world 25 Julien Benneteau, who retired this autumn, told French radio station RMC Sport:
“When he [Federer] promotes the Laver Cup, there are a number of conflicts of interest that have become disturbing. In the organisation of [the Australian Open], there’s Craig Tiley, the boss of the Australian Open, who deals with marketing and television rights. He’s the AO tournament director. He is paid by Roger Federer’s agent and, on the back of that, as luck would have it, Federer has played 12 of his 14 matches at 7.30pm.”
So widely where these and more of his comments reported that Benneteau subsequently Tweeted:
“Just to clarify things, I’m just saying that we must avoid conflicts of interest as much as possible in order to preserve some sporting fairness. There is nothing personal about Roger Federer because I am the first to say that it is the greatest…”
But the issue made it to press conferences at the O2, first to Marin Cilic and John Isner, and finally to Novak Djokovic, who has arguably not been accorded the same preferential treatment at the Australian Open. But he refuted the concept:
“That’s debatable really because at the end of the day, in a way he deserves the special treatment because he’s six-time champion of Australian Open and arguably the best player ever.
“If he doesn’t have it, who is going to? People want to see him play on the centre court, and they want to see him play in show-time, the best hours, which is 7.30 at night.”
It was a robust reply from the current No1, but then there came another robust statement from Tiley himself via Tennis Australia—an unusual step from such a high-profile arena.
In short, the controversy has been hard to escape, and would undoubtedly have penetrated the Federer camp, including his agent, Tony Godsick. Perhaps it was not just the variation in courts in London that kept him out of the public eye: For the moment, he had more immediate worries, in the shape of Thiem.
That Federer broke with his usual warm-up routine in preparation spoke volumes. Yes, there were the usual drills—baseline, net, serving, plus some returns of serve from his hitting partner, Borna Coric.
But 20 minutes extended to half an hour, and on to 40 minutes—almost to the start time for the opening doubles match, as he squeezed in several practice games. He appeared to move well enough, his timing perhaps a touch smoother than in the Nishikori match, but only under the stresses and strains of competition would reality bite.
It was clear within the first 10 minutes that the intense warm-up had done Federer a power of good. He had a break point in the first game, broke in the third, and broke again in the seventh, as Thiem struggled to find any consistency and seemed bamboozled in particular by the skimming slice that this court promotes. In half an hour, the Swiss had the set, 6-2.
The second set showed more nerves from Thiem: He double faulted to offer break point in the first game, and Federer converted. The Swiss was finding more speed around the baseline, and much stronger defence than he had on Sunday. He let a break chance slip in the fifth game, but made up for it in the ninth, breaking for the set and match, 6-3.
His performances had been as chalk and cheese: This was much cleaner, calmer match. And it had made Anderson, who Federer plays in the final round-robin match, wait for confirmation of his place in the semi-finals.
That final match will be particularly compelling, and not just for the complex qualifying scenarios that will depend as much on the result between Thiem and Nishikori as it will on their own contest. For their match will be the first meeting since Anderson came back from two sets to love down to beat Federer at Wimbledon, 13-11 in the fifth.
But he will, he said, follow the same pattern as yesterday and not schedule a practice session:
“I will do the same again tomorrow because it worked. Important was not about my forehand or my backhand or my serve or anything. I guess it was my head. For that sometimes you need a break.
“I’ve been playing a lot of tennis the last two months. [Driving back from the Nishikori match], we came to the conclusion, or the coaches thought, ‘Take it easy, enjoy the day with your family, and come out happy [on Tuesday]. When you play Thiem, that’s what we care about, the head, not the shots.
“So I’m very happy that that was the right decision.”
He will play Anderson on Thursday evening, by which time, the scenarios will have become much simpler: Thiem now has the smallest of chances of progressing, but if he wins, it increases the chances for Federer and Anderson significantly. If Nishikori wins, Federer’s chances diminish considerably: The Swiss has to beat Anderson in two sets to stay alive—and still without any guarantees.
Such are the tensions for all concerned in this unique round-robin format.
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