Federer sizzles past Dimitrov to meet gritty Raonic in Brisbane final

Roger Federer beats Grigor Dimitrov to set up a Brisbane International final clash with Milos Raonic

Roger Federer’s run at his first tournament of 2015 was forged in his opening match against qualifying Australian John Millman.

Top seed Federer admitted he had felt tired at the start, but he fought back from a set and 3-1 down to win—and that strengthened every element of his game.

With his eye in and his movement sharpened, he raced past the next Aussie, James Duckworth, in barely 40 minutes, but he predicted that he would need all his sharpness and energy against the altogether more dangerous semi-final opponent, Grigor Dimitrov.

With a game moulded on that of childhood idol Federer, Dimitrov’s 2014 season took him another step nearer to the holy grail, a Grand Slam: He made his first Wimbledon semi-final to break into the top 10.

But in their only two meetings, both in Basel quarter-finals, Dimitrov had lost: The man who is a decade his senior was not yet ready to hang up his formidable racket.

And as if to stress the point, Federer put Dimitrov to the sword with almost as much ease as he had Duckworth. Yes, it did take him a little longer—53 minutes—and cost him four games instead of one. But it was another master-class, combining the plentiful skills of the Federer of old—pitch-perfect serving, penetrating forehand, varied one-handed backhand—with the new, the one who glides to the net at every opportunity to put away volleys and smashes of every kind. His mentor Stefan Edberg is not with him in Brisbane, but he was with him in almost every net charge.

In three minutes, Federer had broken to lead 2-0. He broke again for 4-1,and despite some creative responses from Dimitrov, who himself took to the net to hold at 2-5, Federer served out the set 6-2 in 21 minutes.

Dimitrov dug in at the start of the second set, but the pressure on his second serve—on every one, Federer charged the net—brought the break in the third game. The Swiss held for 3-1, losing just one point with only his fifth error of the match, and broke again to lead 5-2.

With his back against the wall, Dimitrov opened both barrels and earned his first break chance of the match—indeed four break points—as Federer double-faulted for the only time in the match. But it was to no avail: Federer served out the match, 6-2, with just nine errors to his name for 14 winners. It had been, in short, a lesson from master to aspiring master: Dimitrov will have to wait his turn a little longer.

But Federer will have to find the same level of tennis against his final opponent this week, the towering young Canadian Milos Raonic. The 24-year-old world No8 is another member of the club born in the 1990s, and he too reached the Wimbledon semis last year. He also beat Federer in their last meeting, at the Paris Masters.

Federer, though, highlighted what may prove a key factor come the title match:

“Happy I didn’t waste much energy. I’m fresh for the finals. Probably got a slight advantage over Milos in that regard.”

For Raonic’s test will be how he bounces back from a gripping 2hr 33min battled with the No2 seed Kei Nishikori, which itself came after a two-hour three-setter in the quarters.

The Nishikori and Raonic rivalry is already growing into one of the most intense among the phalanx of rising stars. Last year, they met four times, twice in Grand Slams, and every match was very closely contested. Raonic won at Wimbledon but Nishikori won in a deciding set at both the US Open and Tokyo.

The Brisbane semi would be their closest yet, with neither man broken on serve. But the spoils went to Raonic, 6-7(4), 7-6(4), 7-6(4), though he won just two points more than Nishikori in the 238 played.

In his usual matter-of-fact style, Raonic afterwards commented: “I felt I served really well. That kept me in it, especially in the beginning, because I felt he was getting more and more on top of me at the beginning from the baseline.”

And of his last match in Brisbane, he added: “I’ve got to serve well. That’s always been a key. The last few matches I started poorly. So I got to keep that pressure on him and then sort of step up when I can create my opportunities. I think that’s a good place to start.”

The chances are that Raonic will not simply have to fight off a hugely confident Federer but most of the Brisbane crowd too. The Swiss is favourite almost everywhere he goes, but to add some emotional intensity to proceedings, he will be playing for his 1,000th match-win as well as his 83rd title come Sunday.

For all kinds of reasons, then, a match not to miss.

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