Basel 2013: Roger Federer digs deep to keep London in his view-finder
Roger Federer battles back from a set down to beat Denis Istomin and book his place in the second round of Swiss Indoors in Basel
With seeds falling like autumn leaves all around the city of Basel, it began to look as though Roger Federer may join them.
On the day after his Swiss friend Stanislas Wawrinka and his biggest threat in the draw, Tomas Berdych, bowed out, he watched from the locker room as another major contender for a place at the ATP World Tour Finals left.
Richard Gasquet lost in straight sets to a shocked Centre Court crowd, and he was quickly followed by the No6 seed, Kei Nishikori, who manage only three games against the big-hitting Ivan Dodig in St Jakobshalle’s second court.
So Federer knew that he would not face his final opponent from 2011, Nishikori, as he was scheduled to do in the semi-finals, but he also came unexpectedly close to not making the semi-finals himself.
Federer played the No48 ranked Denis Istomin, a man he had beaten—without dropping a set or even reaching a tie-break—in all four previous matches.
This year, Istomin had actually put together some good results on hard courts—his best surface—and he credited some of his improvement on adopting some brightly framed spectacles, a la Janko Tipsarevic.
Whatever the reason, he reached the semis in Memphis plus five more quarter-finals, most recently in St Petersburg. But anyone who saw him play during this year’s US Open Series swing would have no doubt of his ability—to play great tennis and to cause upsets.
In Montreal, he beat Tipsarevic and then took the first set against Novak Djokovic. Roll on the US Open, and he beat Nicolas Almagro and Andreas Seppi before taking the first set against Andy Murray in the fourth round. He also lived with the big-serving Ivo Karlovic through two long tie-breaks in Moscow. And that ability to return great serving with interest quickly got Federer into trouble in the opening set, with a break in the fifth game.
And it was not as though Federer did not have some chances to break back. Twice he could have levelled but played numerous tight points, including a poor lob attempt and an easy volley hit long. It was another error, from Federer’s erratic forehand, that closed the set, 6-4 in Istomin’s favour.
Still, at the start of the second, Federer seemed to struggle with his timing. He netted forehands, shanked backhands and as if to rub salt into the wound, Istomin was showing great reactions at the net, several times resisting Federer with reflex winners.
But Federer finally converted a break chance in the fourth game with a stunning backhand down the line—a shot that became an increasingly ,effective weapon as the match went on. Now it was Istomin’s turn to throw in a few helpful errors and the No3 seed took the set 6-3.
The match was 70 minutes old but was about to embark on the key phase of the match. Federer’s forehand pummeled Istomin to earn a break point and then another, but once again he could not convert.
Then it was Istomin’s chance. He found two terrific returns of serve to go 0-30 and a dreadful smash from Federer brought up three break points. The crowd was now beside itself, exhorting their man to hold. He obliged, though was helped by a wayward forehand from Istomin on the third.
Two more deuces, two more errors from Federer on game points, but eventually he held through four deuces. They stood at 1-1: The two games from these two fast-playing men, had taken more than a quarter of an hour.
The gutsy hold, and the roar of support it drew from the packed court, seemed to unleash the Federer confidence. A backhand winner down the line took him to 40-0 on Istomin’s next serve and he attacked the net to grab the break.
More relaxed, the Federer serve began to perform better, too. A love hold, and he switched the pressure back on the Istomin serve. It was, though, some energetic defence from the very back of the court that brought another break chance. Istomin could not handle the pressure—of Federer and crowd—hit a smash long and the set was as good as done.
The Swiss served out, 6-2, to advance to the quarters—but his reception from the crowd was worthy of a title-win.
He recognised that he and his tennis had relaxed after defending 0-40 at the start of the third set:
“That moment for me was huge to get out of the 0-40 game, especially after missing my opportunity to break in the first game. I still like to believe that, even if I’d have got broken, that the match wasn’t over, that I would fight my way back into the match because I was feeling good physically. The match was getting more intense as we were moving along [so] it was nice pulling this one off and playing a bit more relaxed as the match went on after I had the lead.”
He next plays one of two talented young players, either wild card Alexandr Dolgopolov or the maiden titlist just days ago in Stockholm, Grigor Dimitrov. The 22-year-old Bulgarian, now at a career-high ranking of 22, is seeded eight here, and beat Radek Stepanek comfortably, 6-3, 6-3.