Young Briton Cameron Norrie continued to show his improving form with wins over Stefanos Tsitsipas and Frances Tiafoe, both men ranked considerably higher than his own No90.
Both high-ranked Germans, Angelique Kerber and Alexander Zverev, beat strong opposition, the likes of Garbine Muguruza, David Ferrer and Lucas Pouille, to match the form that took them to last year’s Hopman Cup final.
And for fans of this sport more generally, the coming together on court for the first time in the 37-year-old lives of two of tennis’s most admired players, Roger Federer and Serena Williams, was a treat of the highest order.
Both super-stars, foregoing points from the WTA and ATP events that herald the Australian swing, won all three of their matches against considerably younger opponents, but perhaps the most eagerly anticipated match was Federer’s last round-robin in a very first meeting with Tsitsipas, one of the best prospects among the new generation to break through the glass ceiling of the men’s tour.
The Greek grew up idolising Federer: “I’ve been dreaming of this moment for a very long time!” he announced, and his admiration of the Swiss oozes from his tennis.
The 20-year-old is cut from a different physical mould—tall, slender and big-serving—but the essence of his game draws hugely on the all-court flair and variety of the Swiss. The stand-out tribute is, of course, the Tsitsipas one-handed backhand, which already has penetrating power and plenty of flexible slice. But the Tsitsipas off-season had clearly been dedicated not just to fitness and endurance work but also to improving his aggressive, forward-moving tactical game.
There were times, in what proved to be one of the men’s matches of the tournament, when the two men seemed to compete for the net position. Both served at a high level, which helped their attacking cause, but what stood out from Tsitsipas was just how secure and adept he was at the net compared with his sometimes rash, ungainly rushes during his race up the rankings over the last 12 months.
Indeed, it was Federer who had to wind up his level and concentration in the early goings when he found himself twice defending deuce. He held, but could make no inroads at all on the Tsitsipas serve.
If the young Greek’s serve did not win the point outright, he pounded a forehand, or came to the net to finish. He played fast, bold tennis, clearly eager to make a mark in preparation for more important tournaments further down the line.
By the time Tsitsipas levelled for 5-5, Federer had won just two return points, though by now he too was close to impenetrable on serve.
Inevitably, this would need a tie-break, and there, Federer was the first to blink, unable to stave off the Greek firepower, 1-4. However, the Swiss forehand kicked in, along with a few nerves on the Tsitsipas serve, and Federer won the next four points. At 5-5, the Greek double faulted and, true to form, Federer aced for the set, 7-6(5), his 11th winner, compared with 12 from the youngster. Neither had faced a break point in the high-quality, pacey set of only 40 minutes.
In the second set, Tsitsipas aced himself out of his first deuce for 2-1, while Federer was now in full flow, which gave the Swiss a look at 0-30 in the fifth game. Again, Tsitsipas’s serving and follow-through were flawless, as he replicated the familiar Federer tactic of wide serve with off-forehand follow-up to perfection.
A blistering Federer backhand return-of-serve drew an untimely error and the first break points of the match, but it was fleeting opportunity: Tsitsipas reeled off four straight points, the last a lucky net cord against a net-smothering Federer, 5-4.
The Swiss then earned another break chance, but Tstisipas again charged the net in impressive style, and held: It would take another tie-break.
This time, Federer got the first edge, 3-1, and brought up match-point, 6-3, courtesy of a drop-shot winner. He served out the win, 7-6(4), which sealed Switzerland’s place in the final.
And if there was one stat in this fast-paced contest that spoke volumes, it was the combined 57 points the two had played at the net. Both had made more winners than errors, and had remained unbroken throughout.
Federer certainly knew he had been in a fight, and apparently enjoyed every minute as he grinned through his on-court interview:
“As you can see I’m still breathing heavily, I’m not getting any younger!”
He added, “He could be my son,” and sure enough, there is another stat that threw into perspective this first meeting and their relative rankings of No15 for Tsitsipas and No3 for Federer.
Their birthdays are in the same week in August—but 17 years apart. But the Swiss played his first senior-tour match before the Greek was born, and claimed the first of his 1,180 match-wins when Tsitsipas was a month old.
The youngster admitted: “It was unbelievable. I’ve been dreaming of this moment for a very long time… It’s the best feeling on earth, even though I lost. There’s a lot of things I can learn from that match. It was a really good lesson today.”
He can also take away some encouraging words from his hero:
“[Stefanos] did a nice job. I think we both played well without too many mistakes. I learned about his game. From my game… it’s about maintaining a good level of play. I’m happy where my game is at. But I was impressed with what I saw from him.”
And the chances are he will see more in the coming months as both attempt to make inroads into draws with rather more at stake. Which is why, of course, this tournament is such a valuable stop on the tour, as Federer knows from the experience of meeting his likely final Perth opponent.
Zverev is 18 months older than Tsitsipas, has his first Masters titles under his belt, and has more muscle on his 6ft6in frame—five kilos more than Tsitsipas—but the Greek scored an important win over the German on his way to his own first Masters final in Toronto, paving the way to what could be one of the key rivalries of the next few years.
Zverev beat Federer for the first time during the 2017 Hopman Cup in three tie-break sets, and Federer got his revenge last year with a three-set win in the final. Along the way, beginning when Zverev was a teenager in 2016, the two men split their meetings 3-3.
So while the Swiss may be the young German’s favourite player, Zverev has learned not to be fazed by his idol—and there were signs of a similar confidence in this Tsitsipas match. Federer knows he now has another eager, hugely talented young player snapping at his heels during the autumn of his career.
· Fellow Greek Maria Sakkari joined forces with Tsitsipas to beat Belinda Bencic in singles and then make the winning play against Federer in doubles to ensure victory in their last group tie. Switzerland plays either Germany or Australia for the title.
· All British interest in WTA and ATP tournaments ended this week. Andy Murray lost to No16 Daniil Medvedev in the second round of Brisbane, admitting along the way that he was still playing with some hip pain as he continues to recover from surgery a year ago. Johanna Konta also lost in Round 2 to Ajla Tomljanovic, along with Harriet Dart, who went down to Anastasija Sevastova.
· After his own second-round loss in Brisbane, top-ranked Briton Kyle Edmund pulled out of his scheduled Sydney appearance with a knee injury.
· In Auckland, the Australian Open defending champion Caroline Wozniacki lost to Canadian qualifier, Bianca Andreescu, denying the New Zealand tournament a contest between the world No3 and the former Auckland champion Venus Williams.
· Rafael Nadal withdrew from Brisbane with a left thigh strain before playing a match, but still plans to compete at the Australian Open: “I really believe that I will be 100 percent ready for Melbourne.” He also pulled out of his second match at an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi last week.
· World No1 Novak Djokovic reached the semi-finals in Doha after his second consecutive three-set battle, first over Marton Fucsovics, then against Nikoloz Basilashvili. It marked his 13th consecutive win at the Qatar Open: The 2016 and 2017 champion was unable to play last year. He next plays Roberto Bautista Agut, who beat Stan Wawrinka.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge