Halle 2017: Roger Federer beats his ‘No1 fan’, Mischa Zverev, but admits ‘It’s kind of cool!’
The former world No1 beats the 29-year-old Russian to edge one step closer to a ninth title in Halle on Thursday evening
Roger Federer has been round the block a few times when it comes to tennis, but nowhere is that more true than on the green, green grass of Halle, home to the Gerry Weber Open.
This year is the eight-time champion’s 15th appearance at the tournament: a record number of titles in Halle, a record number at any tournament for Federer, and part of an all-time record 15 grass titles for the mighty Swiss.
When he opened his grass campaign for 2017 in Stuttgart last week after a 10-week lay-off, he was expected to notch up his 1,100th match-win. He waited instead for the place where he feels most at home, scoring his 55th win in this lush corner of Germany in a spritely 52 minutes.
But there have been occasions when he has won a match here faster even than that. Take the second of his three previous matches with his second-round opponent, Mischa Zverev. In 2013, it was the quarter-finals, their first grass meeting, and Federer was ruthless. It took him only 40 minutes to sweep the German man aside, 6-0, 6-0.
That is no way to treat one of your biggest fans, especially when they have had to battle back from early-career wrist injuries. But as Zverev’s younger brother, 20-year-old Sascha, told me a year back: “I mean Roger is my brother’s favourite player by far, so whatever your brother likes, you like. Also, when I got to know [Federer] a bit on the tour, he’s even more my idol now.”
In fairness to the elder Zverev, in his one subsequent meeting against Federer just a few months back in the quarters of the Australian Open, the man who, at the age of 29, has just broken into the top 30 for the first time, did push the Swiss to a 7-5 second set, but could do no better than win three more games. He had, however, got one feather in his cap: victory over the top seed Andy Murray.
What did he anticipate in Halle this time around?
He laughed: “It will probably be a tough match again. The last time it didn’t go that good here in Halle. I definitely hope it will be better than last time.
“I think the ranking is the biggest difference [this time], and therefore the confidence, and I think that overall I have matured, become older. I trained a lot in the last two, three years—physically a bit stronger, and I think in general I am mentally better and more experienced.”
At that time, he was ranked only 156 in the world, and he recalled how difficult the odds had been.
“I was quite low in the rankings. It was my first quarter-final since a couple of years, and I think I was just happy to be back in a quarter. And it was against Roger and I thought, OK, I won two main draw matches, maybe it will work out again. And, yes, he showed me that will not be the case [laughing]. No, now I am more focused and more serious.”
Perhaps this time he faced Federer with more optimism: After all, the Swiss had suffered that rusty Stuttgart loss, after a 10-week break from the tour, but Zverev was quick to stress, “You always have to be careful with predictions regarding Roger.”
The eight-time champion would have his work cut out on the slick, pacey turf of Halle, for the left-handed Zverev, as well as being far more confident this time around, has the kind of old-fashioned game that shows of the special qualities of grass. A big serve provides the right foundation to his front-of-court tennis. The German even ventures to the net on his second serve—and against his opponent’s serve. That he was playing one of the best all-court attacking players on the tour in Federer promised some lively and speedy rallies.
Sure enough, this time it was no walk-over. Neither gave much quarter, though it was the German who pounded to the net the more often, sometimes winning the venture, sometimes seeing a grooved Federer forehand zip pass. He also faced that remodelled offensive backhand that worked wonders against the toughest opposition—the left-handed Rafael Nadal included—in Australia, Indian Wells, and Miami.
That was where Federer dominated: His speed of reaction to big serves can be astonishing, and when he counters a second serve with such vim, there is little reply. The Swiss was not serving at his best—only around 50 percent of first serves through the match—but he would face not a break point.
Zverev did not face one either until the 10th game of the first set, but boldly fended of three plus countless deuces to take the match to a tie-break. Then having trailed 1-3, he took a 4-3 lead, but that would be it. Federer sealed the set, 7-6(4).
The second set went by rather faster—give or take a medical happening in the crowd during the change of ends at 2-3. The conditions indeed were dreadful—not just hot but sappingly humid. But Federer ambled around the baseline, heading the ball, jogging on the spot, passing the time. A wayward couple of points on the resumption of play were soon cancelled out—and the Swiss would drop only three points on serve out of 25 in the set—and he levelled for 3-3.
It took only one break, to Federer, courtesy of a couple of return-of-serve winners, to leave him serving for the match, and he did so with aplomb, 6-4, and with 28 winners to his name.
The two men embraced warmly, and while the German crowd may have been a little disappointed for their countryman, when it comes to Federer, most the Halle crowd are almost as big a fan of him as is Zverev.
Certainly there was every reason for the big German with the charming sense of humour to smile: He had been one half of a truly entertaining grass-court match. And if he needs anything more to put a spring in his step, it is that he will enjoy a seeding at Wimbledon for the first time.
“Well you can have a tough match in the first round no matter what, but obviously you’re not going to play someone like Roger. I’m looking forward to that because I think I can do well. I’m not going to get my hopes up too soon because you never know what can happen. So as long as I can stay healthy, that’s my main goal right now.”
So for Federer, did playing a ‘fan’, certainly an admirer, change the flavour of a match?
“Yes, like you say, Mischa is being very open about it, that he really is a very big fan of mine, and [younger brother] Alex, too, but Alex can never be No1, because Mischa is older and he’ll always be my No1—which is totally awkward [laughs].
“But they are very nice guys and it does create a bit of a different flavour, no doubt about it. But I appreciate their honesty. For the match, nothing really changes, but I’m always happy if guys enjoy following my career because I will do the same.”
He admitted that, as well as Pete Sampras—who he played only once, a victory at Wimbledon—it was players from the TV that he had admired in the same way:
“I guess for me, it was Sampras the most, and then I just enjoyed playing the likes of Moya, Henman and Kafelnikov—Agassi of course, that generation of players was great to play against.
“When I’m retired, I’ll follow guys again that are going to play great tennis—so, it’s kind of cool!”
Next up for Federer is another German, indeed the defending champion, Florian Mayer. But he may be just as comfortable playing that German as this one: He holds a 7-0 head to head, including three straight-sets wins in Halle.