Roger Federer, five-time champion, No3 seed, owner of 102 titles, three of them won this year, dropped the opening set against qualifier Simit Nagal—a man ranked 190, playing his first Major match, and without a main-tour win to his name.
The much-loved Swiss looked out of sorts, unable to find the court with serve or forehand, made 19 errors and served at just 48 per cent in conceding the opener, 6-4.
He righted the ship, though, making 19 winners in the next set, 12 more in the third and an impressive 21 in the fourth. But it had been a rusty-looking start. He afterwards confessed:
“I wasn’t serving consistently enough. I was hitting double faults that usually I don’t do. Also, I was just hitting too many unforced errors. I was in two minds, I guess… Maybe it’s not a bad thing to go through a match like this… At the end you look at the last three sets, and they were good. That’s encouraging.”
Encouraging until he began his second match, this time under the roof of a rain-blighted Wednesday afternoon.
Now he played Damir Dzumhur, a wiry, fast, attacking player with considerably more experience than Nagal, though at the age of 27, a full decade younger than his illustrious opponent.
And Dzumhur’s current 99 ranking belied his considerable ability. Just a year ago, he was ranked 23, owned three titles from four finals—all in the last two years—but had contended with repeated injuries in the last 18 months, to back, shoulder and abdomen.
Federer had not played the Bosnian since their only two matches in 2015, in what were relatively one-sided wins for the Swiss. However, the Dzumhur who turned up for their third encounter was a stronger, wiser and more confident player. And it made for another extraordinary start to the match, with Federer again lacking vim, missing shots, opting to hit big from the baseline with Dzumhur rather than mix things up to undermine the Bosnian’s confident game-plan.
The Bosnian broke not once but twice to take a 4-0 lead, while Federer notched up 12 unforced errors, and although the Swiss got one break back to close things to 4-2, the errors continued to flow as Dzumhur threw in deft drops and big backhands, and eventually served out the set, 6-3.
Not content with that shock, Dzumhur worked a break point in the very first game of the second set, and it took the best rally of the match so far, with both sprinting the extreme margins of the court, for Federer to hold it off.
At last, the Swiss seemed to be finding his range and a little more intensity, and he fired a superb forehand winner to break for 2-0. Federer had the chance to make it 4-0, but the nimble Dzumhur resisted. Federer was having to hit the ball hard and fast to keep the Bosnian at bay and hold off another break chance. It paid off, and Federer got another break to seal the set, 6-2.
The now-flowing Swiss took a quick lead in the third set too, 3-0, and Dzumhur had to battle through seven minutes to get his first game on the board. That done, he worked four chances to break back in the seventh game, but could not convert. Federer held, 5-2, and served out the set with his 11th ace, 6-3.
The turn-around had been as dramatic in this match as in Federer’s first. After making 17 unforced errors in the first set, Federer had made just 15 in the next two together.
Dzumhur, however, was not about to throw in the towel, despite two time-outs for attention to a tweak in his abdomen. He kept up the high pace, stepping in from the baseline and standing toe-to-toe with the former champion.
He held to love in the first game of the fourth, and Federer had to find some huge forehands to power to his own hold. But all at once, the stress and pressure seemed to take hold of the Bosnian, his serve wavered, and the increasingly assured Federer broke for 2-1. Yet he still had to fend off a break point to hold, on the click of two hours, 3-1.
And that was enough, for the Swiss was now reading the Dzumhur serve better, returning sharper, serving at 70 per cent, winning almost 80 per cent of them, and charging the net with increasing success. He sealed his third-round spot, 6-4, after 2hrs20mins, with 58 winners to his credit, 45 errors to his debit.
It marked his 87th win in his 100th match at the US Open—and in his 19th appearance at the tournament, he has yet to lose before the third round.
But it also marked another, perhaps less expected, milestone: He had not won from a set down in consecutive matches since Dubai in 2014, and had never lost the first set in the first two rounds at the US Open. Remarkably, in fact, no player has lost the first set in both opening rounds en route to the title in New York since the abolition of the challenge round in 1912. So judging from the record books, Federer has a lot to do if he is to claim his sixth US Open title, and his first in over a decade.
The next challenge will not be an easy one, either, against either the No25 seed Lucas Pouille or Daniel Evans, who have yet to play their Round-2 match after rain washed out most of the schedule.
Federer is 2-0 against both men and has not dropped a set to either player. But against superior opponents who have both been finding good form over the summer, Federer will not want to give either a head start.
Afterwards, though, he was at something of a loss for his less-than-ideal starts to his New York campaign:
“I have been in that position many times where you go through a little phase where you don’t start so well and everybody asks you right away, What are you going to do? You’re like, I don’t know. Just go back to the drawing board. Just do the same things again. You hope for a better outcome.
“I don’t think there is a secret to a good start other than warming up well, being well-prepared mentally. Not underestimating your opponent. I did all of that… So when it happens like this back-to-back matches, you know, it’s just a bit frustrating more than anything, especially when the level is that low and there is that many errors and the energy is not kind of there.”
He concluded, however:
“Most important, in my opinion, is you’re 100 per cent ready to battle—are you in good shape, are you happy to be here?… At the end of the day all you can give is 100 per cent, and I have been doing that for many, many years now. If it falls into place, great. If it doesn’t, well, you can always go back to the drawing board and figure out maybe what did you do wrong or was it just, you know, the kind of day that didn’t go your way. That’s it.”
Karolina Pliskova beat Mariam Bolkvadze, 6-1, 6-4
Serena Williams beat Catherine McNally, 5-7, 6-3, 6-1
Elina Svitolina beat Venus Williams, 6-4, 6-4
Madison Keys beat Lin Shu, 6-4, 6-1
Ashleigh Barty beat Lauren Davis, 6-2, 7-6
Novak Djokovic beat Juan Ignacio Londero, 6-4, 7-6, 6-1
Kei Nishikori beat Bradley Klahn, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5
Dominik Koepfer beat Reilly Opelka, 6-4, 6-4, 7-6
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge