Rotterdam 2018: Federer beats Seppi to set title bout against Dimitrov
The world number one beats Andrea Seppi to set up a final meeting with second seed Grigor Dimitrov on Sunday
Three of the names filling their allotted places in the ABN AMRO Tennis Championships were hardly a surprise, even though the likes of Stan Wawrinka had fallen at the first hurdle and Tomas Berdych had withdrawn with illness in the quarters.
Top of the pile—literally, after his win over Robin Haase yesterday—was No1 seed, and now world No1 again, Roger Federer.
In the bottom half, No2 seed Grigor Dimitrov had bounced back from a shoulder injury before Sofia to beat some dangerous challengers. His matches had been testing, but he had yet to drop a set.
He faced, in the semis, a familiar opponent and friend, No4 seed David Goffin. Their final at the World Tour Finals, and quarter-final in Rotterdam last year, had been high-quality, compelling matches, and this latest meeting was building up a nice head of steam, too, until Goffin took a ball in the left eye and was rushed to hospital.
But the fourth man hoping to break up a final party between the top two seeds was an unexpected presence. Andreas Seppi, ranked 81, age 33, without a title since 2012 nor a final since 2015, had won only four main-tour matches in 2017 after Wimbledon. A former top 20 player he may be, but his form had, in recent years, been hit by hip problems.
Hence Seppi’s lowly ranking, and hence his having entered qualifying here, where he did not make it into the main draw. But fate dealt him a second chance, a lucky loser spot courtesy of the withdrawal of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. And he made full use of it, beating Joao Sousa, the No3 seed, Alexander Zverev, and the dangerous #NextGen Russian, Daniil Medvedev in a gruelling three-setter. He admitted after his Zverev win:
“He of course didn’t play his best tennis. Missed a lot of forehands. But it’s a long time since I beat a top-10 player.”
He had, though, beaten top-10 players, with the kind of tennis that disrupted the likes of Rafael Nadal in 2008, and a certain Federer in the third round of the Australian Open in 2015.
And Seppi had played a lot of tennis with considerable success in recent months. For the second year in a row, he reached the fourth round of the Australian Open, after winning the Canberra Challenger, where he beat Ivo Karlovic in an extraordinary 6-3, 7-6, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 contest, despite facing 52 aces.
He followed Australia with a trip to Japan for Davis Cup, and another five-set marathon. Then it was back to Europe and indoors, where he lost a 2hr 34min three-setter in the second round of Sofia.
The biggest question facing Seppi, then, was how much he had left in his legs, and whether he could achieve a second win against the 13 losses he had suffered to Federer.
Federer’s problem was an entirely different one. He had put a huge amount of emotional as well as physical energy into winning his quarter-final, and with it the No1 ranking. He wept, beamed, drank champagne, left very late. And he admitted to media that he had no idea whether he would have a let-down after that record-making night or whether he would be freed by putting it behind him and focusing on the title.
Weighed against that question was the Swiss man’s form and prodigious fitness. He had yet to lose a match this year. He could even add a clean sweep at the Hopman Cup to his Australian Open title and his run to the semis here.
Federer elected to receive, though it profited him little. He immediately had to fend off break points, but aced to hold, 1-1. He then pressed Seppi in the third game, and broke at the second time of asking following a devastating backhand rally.
His advantage did not last long—the Swiss serving continued to work below par, 50 percent, and Seppi broke straight back. Things remained tight until the seventh game, and Federer unleashed a forehand return-of-serve winner to break, held to love and broke again, in a fine passage of attacking play, 6-3, in 37 minutes.
With some momentum behind him, Federer’s serving level improved, though Seppi was keeping him at bay with great length and with the flat pace of his ground strokes. The Swiss berated himself at not taking advantage of 0-30 situations, gesticulated to no-one in particular, but he was giving up precious few points on his own serve—two from 16 by the time they stood at 4-4.
By 5-5 they were separated by only two points. Federer wavered, a double fault for deuce, but a backhand winner and then a volley, and he held. It headed to a tie-break, still only two points apart.
Seppi won a long baseline opening rally, 1-0, but now Federer came up with some of his best shots of the match, including a forehand winner and a carved volley put away, and two tired errors from Seppi made it 5-1. The Italian had not offered up a break point in the second set, but he was on the back foot as Federer raced to the line, 7-6(3), in under an hour and a half.
Federer will, then, go for title 97, one more notch in his next target for the season, a round 100 titles. First he will have to better the in-from Dimitrov, who has begun to sparkle through this tournament. Federer has bettered him in all six matches so far, though they have had a couple of tough ones, but the Swiss expects his form and confidence to be higher after last season.
“He had an incredible year last year, breakthrough year to some extent. I think winning the World Tour Finals and Cincinnati, that’s the next level. He beat a lot of top-10 players, that’s hard to do, that should give him a world of confidence… He’s athletic, he’s a winner…. So I’ll try my best and hope it’s enough.
“I don’t think it’s going to matter that I finished late, I hope I’m physically and mentally tough enough to handle one more match, especially knowing I will have four days off after this. It is all out now, everything that’s left in the tank, you give it.”
They will take to court at 3.30—and it will be a sell-out.