French Open 2019: Roger Federer’s 400th Major match heralds more new records for Swiss
Federer one of six in eight men in his quarter to use single-handed backhand
· Federer became oldest man to make the fourth round at Roland Garros since Nicola Pietrangeli in 1972: the Swiss turns 38 in August.
· Federer served the 11,000th ace during the match—he hit 11 altogether: Only Ivo Karlovic and John Isner have served more
· Federer set a new record for most fourth-round appearances at the tournament, 14
Five days done and dusted, and the 128 are reduced to 32. It is time for the seeds to clash for the first time, except that in the men’s draw, there would be relatively few such clashes throughout the third round.
But while only four of the 16 clashes boasted pairs of seeds, the top 10 ranked men had all held firm, and taken up their places in the third round—from No1 Novak Djokovic to No10 Karen Khachanov.
However, three of the four former champions at Roland Garros would face unseeded men in their pursuit of a Round 4 place.
Of the four, it would be only 11-time champion Rafael Nadal, winner of 88 matches out of 90 at the French Open, who faced his scheduled opponent, No27 seed David Goffin. On paper, it was the toughest challenger among the quartet. After all, Goffin was a former No7 until two different injuries hit his form and confidence. He also counted a win over Nadal at the ATP Finals, but Nadal had beaten him in all three clay matches.
2016 champion Djokovic would, come Saturday, play the 147-ranked Salvatore Caruso, after the Italian qualifier put paid to No26 seed Gilles Simon. The world No1’s pursuit of his second ‘Nole Slam’ looked safe for the moment.
Then there were the two Swiss former champions.
No3 seed Roger Federer, winner in 2009 and runner-up four times, with a 65-16 record in Paris, would return to the site of his last visit here in 2015, the site of his last match until he returned to Paris this week. He lost in the quarter-finals on Suzanne Lenglen to an on-fire Stan Wawrinka, and his compatriot went on to beat Djokovic in the final.
Finally, there was that 2015 champion, No24 seed Wawrinka, who took on one of the most dangerous unseeded men left in the draw, Grigor Dimitrov.
Wawrinka, owner of three Majors, was also runner-up at Roland Garros while ranked No3 in 2017, but double knee surgery that summer took him off the tour for half a year, and he aborted his return for much of 2018.
So his ranking slipped outside the top 200, and his comeback was slow, but this year, he reached the Rotterdam final, his first since reaching the final right here two years ago.
In fact, Wawrinka’s opponent was ranked lower than the 22-year-old Cristian Garin, who he beat in Round 2. Garin is ranked 37, while Dimitrov arrived here at 46.
For the Bulgarian, another man who reached a high of No3 in 2017 after winning four titles and reaching the semis at the Australian Open, plummeted during 2018, helped not a little by a shoulder injury.
Roland Garros has never been a happy hunting ground for Dimitrov, but he produced a stunning comeback from two sets to one down to put out No11 seed Marin Cilic in five sets—having survived a five setter in his opener as well. It took him to the third round here for the fourth time, but to go one step further for the first time, he had to beat Wawrinka for the first time since 2016 in the battle of the single-handed backhands.
Wawrinka owns perhaps the most powerful pile-driver backhand on the tour, Dimitrov one of the most extreme actions—little wonder he has developed shoulder problems. Yet theirs were just two examples in a quarter packed by single-handers—indeed six of the eight men.
The standard bearer, Federer, boasts one of the most recognisable backhands in tennis. He played here in 1999, and at 37, he is the oldest man left in the draw. With his third-round match, two elements emphasised his elder-statesman status.
First, he would become the only player, man or woman, to contest 400 singles matches at the Majors. Second, his third opponent here, age just 20, was almost young enough to be the Swiss man’s son. Ruud’s father and Federer both played in the men’s draw in Paris between 1999 and 2001, though they never played one another.
And the youngster put up a great fight in front of a capacity crowd, especially after suffering the full gamut of Federer’s power and guile in the first set. Ruud suffered two breaks, the second courtesy of a smash from Federer, 6-3.
The Norwegian saw even more of the Federer variety in the second set, and faced some formidable serving. Federer’s chipped backhand return, followed by an attacking forehand, was particularly rewarding for the Swiss. The former champion raced to 5-0, and saved a break point to serve out the set, 6-1, with an ace.
In the third set, however, Federer did not have things his own way, partly because his first serve dipped to 56 percent, partly because Ruud was reading his game better, served big, pulled off lobs and passes, and got a break in the second game.
However, Federer broke straight back, but passed up more break chances along the way to a tie-break. Ruud seemed to have some momentum, while Federer showed signs of frustration as the Norwegian hustled the pace.
But come the final game, Federer went on the offensive, serve and volleyed—even on second serves—and a big serve-forehand play brought up match points. However, the Swiss would need three bites of the cherry, saving a set point against him in the process, before closing it out in style, with a smash, 7-6(8)
So back to those single-handed backhands, then, for Federer will face another in shape of unseeded Leonardo Mayer. The Argentine beat 37-year-old Nicolas Mahut, 3-6, 7-6(3), 6-4, 7-6(3), after three and a half hours.
However it is, not for the first time, Federer who heads into the second week with a new swathe of records: The oldest man to make the fourth round at Roland Garros since Nicola Pietrangeli in 1972; the most fourth-round appearances at the tournament, 14; and a career milestone 11,000th ace—something achieved by the two tallest men on the tour, Ivo Karlovic and John Isner.
The Swiss admitted that numbers like this still mean a lot to him:
“Well I didn’t know! It’s true I played many matches in Grand Slam tournaments, and it’s even nicer to do this in Roland Garros, because I have a lot of records, milestones from Wimbledon or the US Open. But doing anything [here] is very special, because I played a lot here. It was my first Grand Slam where I was in the main draw.”
Nadal beat Goffin, 6-1, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, matching Federer in the process to reach the fourth round for the 14th time in 15 years. He remains unbeaten in his last 19 French Open matches, winning 56 of 58 sets.
Kei Nishikori beat Laslo Djere, 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-3, 4-6, 8-6, in the second longest match so far at this year’s championships, 4hrs 26mins.