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Roger Federer Suffers Another Hard Loss After Reaching Match Point

The 20-time Grand Slam champion displayed encouraging signs when he returned to action in Doha before he fell victim to the “match point syndrome” once again.

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image via Qatar Tennis

Having been gone from the game for nearly 13 months after enduring two knee surgeries in 2020, Roger Federer went back to work last week in Doha as devoted tennis fans—and even the sports world at large—followed his every move. Federer, of course, is one of the most renowned athletes in the world, a singularly graceful practitioner of his craft, and an ineffably pure and artistic shotmaker who was sorely missed by his many ardent admirers.

 

That is why the return of the 39-year-old Swiss Maestro was eagerly anticipated by so many devoted observers across the globe. They were thirsting to see him perform again, hoping he could rekindle some of his old magic, and fascinated to find out what he could bring back to the table of competition. They wanted this version of Roger Federer to be sublime. They hoped he could inspire them once more with his sheer creativity and a soaring imagination that has long made Federer a transcendent figure in his trade.

Federer did not entirely let them down, nor did he necessarily live up to the perhaps unrealistic expectations of some fervent fans. In his opening match in the round of 16, Federer took on Great Britain’s Dan Evans, with whom he had been practicing frequently. Evans had never taken a set off Federer, but surely believed this was a golden opportunity to upset a rusty adversary who had spent 405 days away from match play.

Evans created a nice opening when he advanced to break point at 4-4 in the first set, but Federer met that moment with calm assurance. A deep inside-in forehand from Federer pulled Evans out of position, setting up the Swiss for his trademark inside-out forehand winner. Federer held on in that crucial game. On they went to a tie-break, and the 20-time major champion trailed 2-4 in that sequence and later served at 5-6 and set point down.

Federer sent a deadly accurate first serve down the middle in the ad court. Evans did not get good depth on the return. Federer stepped in and unleashed a forehand inside-out winner. Having dodged out of danger, Federer took that tie-break 10-8 on his third set point.

He was playing reasonably well, but not making much of an impression on the Evans serve. The British player claimed the second set 6-3 on one break of serve. In the final set, Federer was twice down break point at 3-3 but he released an ace and then a spectacular forehand drop shot winner.

Federer held on for 4-3 and did so again to lead 5-4. In the tenth game, Federer had a match point, but Evans caught the Swiss off guard. He came in behind a deep first serve to the backhand and put away a forehand volley unhesitatingly. That serve-and-volley combination was letter perfect. Evans stayed alive in holding for 5-5, but Federer went right back to work, holding at 30 with a dazzling backhand down the line winner, closing out the contest by breaking at 15 with another backhand down the line into the clear. 

image via Qatar Tennis

Federer’s 7-6 (8), 3-6, 7-5 triumph was hard earned. He then came back the next day to take on an entirely different type of player in Nikoloz Basilashvili. Evans had prolonged the rallies as much as possible in his duel with Federer. Basilashvili is a very big hitter who was walloping the ball with controlled aggression in this quarterfinal. Federer played a solid first set which he took comfortably before Basilashvili blitzed through the second set with a couple of service breaks, totally outhitting Federer from the baseline. On they went to a third set. At 3-3, Federer fended off three break points, erasing the first with a vicious sliced backhand drawing an error, wiping away the second with an unanswerable forehand, and casting aside the third with an excellent first serve to the backhand.

To 4-3 went Federer with a clutch hold. But Basilashvili was resolute. Serving to stay in the match in the tenth game, the Georgian was down match point, but he rescued himself admirably, approaching forcefully off a short return from Federer and keeping his shot low. Federer had no chance to make the backhand passing shot. Basilashvili held on for 5-5 and then closed out the account with some sparkling ball striking off the backhand, going down the line off that side frequently to leave Federer compromised. The world No. 42 took the last two games from 5-5, winning eight of the last eleven points, prevailing 3-6, 6-1, 7-5.

And so Federer lost narrowly in a quarterfinal contest that could have gone either way. He could be somewhat satisfied with his level of play across two close matches after a long hiatus. His smoothly efficient serve was close to normal. He had 25 aces combined in those two Doha clashes and did not serve a single double fault. All told he was quite good off the forehand. The central issue was his backhand. Federer made an alarming number of miss-hits off that side. He also bungled a swing volley or two, smiling sardonically at himself after those mistakes, knowing he could not expect perfection.

But perhaps most irksome to Federer fans was the fact that his loss to Basilashvili marked the 24th time in his illustrious career that Federer has lost a match after having at least one match point. The first time it happened for the Swiss was back in 2000. Confronting Tim Henman in the semifinals of Vienna, Federer won the first set 6-2 and had two match points with the British player serving at 5-6, 15-40 in the second set. Henman rallied to win 2-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3. Federer was only 19. No one took much notice at the time that he had not closed out that account when he was twice only a point away from prevailing.

And yet, as the years passed, these kinds of losses became surprisingly numerous for a player of his rare stature, even though on the other hand he has demonstrated over and over again that he knows what it takes to put the finishing touches on fine performances. What reasonable critic could claim that Federer was afraid to lose or incapable of closing out the most consequential of matches?

He now stands tied with Rafael Nadal for the most men’s major titles at 20, and owns 103 career singles titles, which is second only to Jimmy Connors (109) in the Open Era among the men. Furthermore, he has been a magnificent big match player, coming though in 103 of 157 overall finals for a winning percentage of .656 and taking 20 of 31 Grand Slam finals (.645).

Those numbers are excellent. But that rate of success makes these setbacks after holding match points all the more surprising. Consider this: Novak Djokovic has been beaten only three times in his entire career after advancing to match point, and yet he has struck back boldly from double match point down three times to beat Federer. Rafael Nadal has lost only eight contests when he has reached match point. The Spaniard toppled Federer in the 2006 Rome final after saving two match points in the fifth set. That was a critical win for the left-hander. Granted, both Nadal and Djokovic are much younger than Federer, but neither the Spaniard nor the Serbian has been nearly as vulnerable under these circumstances as the Swiss. Federer has played 1,515 matches across his sterling career, Nadal 1,213 and Djokovic 1,135.

image via Qatar Tennis

Since Federer suffered that first loss to Henman after twice being at match point in 2000, there have not been many  seasons when the Swiss has not experienced defeats of the same type. He managed to avoid meeting that fate in 2004, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012 and in his abbreviated 2020 campaign. But he has lost at least one match in 16 different years after being ahead match point. In 2010, Federer lost no fewer than four battles when he had match points, which is extraordinary.

Perhaps more importantly, Federer has fallen into the unexploited match points syndrome six times across his sterling career at the majors—twice at the Australian Open (against Tommy Haas in 2002 and Marat Safin in 2005); twice at Wimbledon (versus Kevin Anderson in a 2018 quarterfinal and Novak Djokovic in the epic 2019 final), and twice at the U.S. Open (facing Djokovic in 2010 and 2011).

Most of those disappointments had large historical ramifications. Consider the 2005 Safin loss in the semifinals of Melbourne. Federer was ahead two sets to one, and reached match point at 6-5 in the fourth set tie-break. He served-and-volleyed on his second delivery. Federer lunged to make a decent backhand first volley down the line. Safin’s passing shot was low, and Federer responded with a short backhand finesse volley. Safin scampered forward swiftly and lofted a perfect lob down the middle over Federer’s head. Federer chased it down but, rather than answer with a lob of his own, he went for a “tweener” and missed it badly. Federer has always had a knack for when to play the percentages and when to be audacious, but his split-second judgement in this instance was misguided.

Be that as it may, a buoyant Safin won the next two points to seal the fourth set and then took the hard fought fifth, toppling Federer 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 9-7 in four hours and 28 minutes. Federer won 201 points in that match to Safin’s 194, but still lost. He had beaten Safin in the final of the Australian Open the year before, and had a 6-1 career winning record over the Russian going into this confrontation. Federer would finish 10-2 over Safin. 

But that critical semifinal in Melbourne got away from the Swiss. He would have played Lleyton Hewitt in the final. Federer had beaten Hewitt six consecutive times in 2004, including a round of 16 win at the Australian Open and a crushing 6-0, 7-6 (3), 6-0 victory in the U.S. Open final. So his defeat against Safin was immensely consequential. Federer would have been highly unlikely to lose against Hewitt in the final. That Australian Open would have surely belonged to him.

But while that misfortune against Safin was significant, think of the three stunning reversals of fortune between Djokovic and Federer at the premier events. At the 2010 U.S. Open, Djokovic was serving at 4-5, 15-40 against Federer in the semifinals, but he courageously produced a forehand swing volley winner off a hanging Federer sliced backhand. On the second match point, Djokovic laced a forehand inside-in winner. Djokovic held on for 5-5 and then completed a stunning 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5 victory.

On to 2011. Federer and Djokovic clashed in the penultimate round of the U.S. Open for the fourth year in a row after Federer had overcome the Serbian in the 2007 final. Djokovic rallied from two sets to love down to force a fifth set. But the Swiss was revitalized, serving for the match at 5-3, 40-15. For the second straight year, Federer had fashioned a double match point lead in the U.S. Open semifinals against Djokovic.

But history repeated itself. Federer swung a slice serve wide in the deuce court. Djokovic went for broke, lacing a screaming forehand return winner crosscourt. It was the “shot heard around the world.” At 40-30, Federer hit a fine body serve but Djokovic fought it off, and his backhand return coaxed Federer into a forehand error.

Djokovic swept four games in a row to finish off an astonishing 4-6 6-7 (7), 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 victory. For the second consecutive year, he had rallied from double match point down to upend Roger Federer in New York. In both of those years, Rafael Nadal made it to the final. Had Federer moved past Djokovic on either occasion, Nadal at that time would have been the favorite to beat him for the crown, but who knows for certain what might have happened?

Let’s move on to 2019 at Wimbledon. Djokovic and Federer were colliding in their third Centre Court final, with the Serbian having ousted the Swiss in 2014 and 2015. It was the signature match of their astounding career head to head series, which Djokovic now leads 27-23. Djokovic trailed 5-3 in the first set tie-break but collected four points in a row to salvage it. Federer blazed through the second set before Djokovic battled back from set point down late in the third set to win another tie-break.

Federer stormed back again to send the battle into a fifth set. Djokovic led 4-2 but Federer rallied to 4-4. The Swiss broke Djokovic again in the 15th game and served for the match at 8-7, reaching 40-15 with consecutive aces.

For the third time in his career at a major, Roger Federer would lose to Novak Djokovic improbably after arriving at double match point. On the first match point, he steered a shaky forehand wide. Then Djokovic saved the second with a clutch forehand crosscourt passing shot winner. He soon broke back for 8-8, leaving the overwhelmingly pro-Federer Centre Court audience in quiet despair.

In the end, this classic encounter was settled in the first ever fifth set tie-break at Wimbledon in men’s singles, with Djokovic cooly outplaying his formidable rival to complete a 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3) victory. Federer has never beaten both Nadal and Federer in the same Grand Slam tournament, and would have collected a 21st major title by realizing that extraordinary feat for the first time. Instead, Djokovic took his 16th “Big Four” crown. It was surely the most gratifying victory of Djokovic’s career and the most devastatingly potent defeat ever for Federer.

So there you have it. The “match point syndrome” has haunted Federer more times than he would care to remember. But it must be said that he has made more than his share of gallant comebacks. On 22 occasions in his career, he has rallied from at least one match point down to win, which is no mean feat. That list of triumphs includes four wins at the majors— two at the U.S. Open, one at Wimbledon and one at the Australian Open.

None of those four comebacks at the majors led to Federer capturing the titles. Nonetheless, some of his other match point recoveries did indeed result in Federer becoming the champion, most recently his 2017 Miami quarterfinal rescue mission against Tomas Berdych, when he saved two match points and went on to oust Nadal in the final. At five other tournaments when he saved match points along the way, Federer also took the title, including round robin triumphs at the ATP Finals against Andre Agassi in 2003 and Andy Roddick three years later as Federer moved on to win those prestigious tournaments.

Leaving the match point setbacks and recoveries aside, where does Federer go from here? It is not easy to project. I thought he would compete in Dubai this week since he only played two matches in Doha, but Federer felt he had to resume his training. No one can gauge the current state of Roger Federer and his game better than Federer himself. But he surely needs many more matches if he is going to make a serious bid for a ninth Wimbledon title in July.

He had already decided to skip Miami, and so, between now and the start of the grass court season in June, he can only compete in clay court events. There will be some tough scheduling decisions ahead. I don’t think he really believes he can win a second French Open title this year, so will he go to Paris? Perhaps he will; in 2019 he chose to return to Roland Garros for the first time in four years, reaching the semifinals before nearly winning Wimbledon.

The view here is that Wimbledon will be his last best chance to secure a 21st major crown. He will be 40 in August. He has not won the U.S. Open since he took his fifth consecutive title there in 2008. That is why he will surely throw all of his emotional energy into winning Wimbledon this year. Even if Federer rounds into top form, it will still be awfully tough yet not impossible for him to rule again at the All England Club. But the fact remains that he is never going to sell himself short. All of us must remember that he is a champion through and through with a seemingly limitless supply of ambition and a propensity to put his greatest wins and most bruising defeats behind him, simply pressing on professionally to pursue his immediate goals.   


Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.

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Laver Back In the Conversation For Greatest Player?

Daniil Medvedev thwarted Djokovic’s Calendar Year Grand Slam ambitions and is ready to take over as the best in the game.

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Who’s the greatest player ever?

 

How about Rod Laver, the owner of two Calendar Grand Slams?

Or what about Rafa Nadal, the owner of 21 major singles titles (including Olympic Gold)?

Or what about 20-20-20-Laver?

HOW DOES 20-20-20-LAVER SOUND?

Since Novak Djokovic failed in his bid to win a Calendar Grand Slam on Sunday, I nominate the last of the three possibilities. 20-20-20-Laver sounds like a winner.

For Djokovic just to enter the conversation was a major achievement, and that was spurred by the Serbian’s bid for a Calendar Grand Slam.

Daniil Medvedev ended that conversation on Sunday, at least for now, with his straight-set 4-4-4 dismantling of Djokovic in the U.S. Open final.

DISAPPOINTING YEAR FOR NOVAK

As 2021 turned out, it was a really disappointing year for Djokovic, even though he won the year’s first three Grand Slam events. Most players would be out celebrating if they won three Grand Slams in one year.

The loss to Alexander Zverev in the Tokyo Olympics ended Novak’s Golden Grand Slam. And then Medvedev took care of the Calendar Grand Slam talk and the possibility of Djokovic breaking a 20-20-20 deadlock with Nadal and Roger Federer.

So, what’s next? I doubt that Novak is planning to skip the Australian Open in January. Even that one won’t be easy for Djokovic as a result of what has happened in late summer.

NO PICNIC DOWN UNDER FOR NOVAK

Djokovic has practically owned the Australian Open with nine titles in Melbourne, and eight of the last 11. But Medvedev and Zverev will be major obstacles for Djokovic in Melbourne, along with Stefanos Tsitsipas.

The Australian Open isn’t likely to be a picnic for Novak, even if Federer and Nadal skip the trip. If so, Federer and Nadal will be leaving the Australian Open in capable hands.

Things should start heating up by the quarterfinals Down Under.

By the way, Djokovic is 34 years old. That’s about the age Nadal started having trouble winning Grand Slams.

A DOMINANT VICTORY FOR THE RUSSIAN

Medvedev beat Djokovic at just about everything he tried on Sunday. Djokovic was never in the game on serving competition or powerful forehands.

Those areas belonged to the 25-year-old Russian.

And movement? On this day, Medvedev had a picnic. The 6-6 first-time Grand Slam winner was everywhere with his amazing quickness. Djokovic couldn’t put a dent in his baseline defense.

Medvedev even out-did Djokovic in the Serbian’s usually solid drop shot department, pinning  even more disappointment on Novak.

Novak even caused a ball girl to change directions during the match as he swung his racket near the surface in  frustration after losing a point. Later, he punished his racket by smashing it into the court and destroying it.

MEDVEDEV’S SERVE MADE THE DIFFERENCE

The key to the relatively easy win for Medvedev was his serve. He was a perfect 15-for-15 on first-serve points in the opening set.

Medvedev obviously had little trouble with his serve until he was ready to end the match. With Medvedev owning a match point at 5-2 in the third set, the crowd tried to help Djokovic. Only then when the crowd got into the act of trying to break Medvedev’s attention did he double-fault twice in a row before netting a forehand to give Djokovic the game.

But in the final game of the match, Medvedev was ready for the crowd attack, although he double-faulted another match point away before ending the match with a big serve out wide for a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 victory. Djokovic managed only to hit the bottom of the net with his backhand return.

And suddenly, the tall Russian looks like the best player in the game.


James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award as the tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspapers. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com

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Raducanu Proved She’s The Better Player

The British sensation shocked the tennis world – can she keep it up in the coming years?

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They played in the largest tennis stadium in the world.

 

They were teenagers. They achieved a dream early in their careers.

It just as easily could have been a junior championship a year earlier in their careers.

Only a few people would have been watching then. Such an event might not even have drawn newspaper coverage.

REAL LIFE NOW SETS IN

This meeting was much bigger and more important. The two participants would be $2.7 million richer between them before the day ended. They would become famous the world over, at least for now.

But this was Saturday, 9/11/21.

Real life now sets in. There probably are at least 100 other players in the world who are just as outstanding as Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez. Yet, most of them will never be involved in a Grand Slam singles final.

NEVER TO BE FORGOTTEN

What Raducanu and Fernandez accomplished will never be forgotten, always listed in tennis annals.

England will always be proud of its new Grand Slam champion. At long last, Virginia Wade has company.

And Canada will never forget its feisty Grand Slam runner-up.

They stood the test while other more touted and talented players buckled at the knees. High-ranked players crumbled at the thought of losing to a mere teenager.

Next time, that advantage probably won’t exist.

BRITISH 18-YEAR-OLD WAS THE STRONGER PLAYER

Raducanu and Fernandez played the final like the teenagers they are.

Raducanu came close to making it a one-sided result when she held match point twice with a 5-2 lead in the second set. But Fernandez did not give up on her left-handed game that Raducanu had conquered before in the junior ranks.

After losing both points and the game to make the match closer, Raducanu fought off a pair of break points in the next game before making good on her third match point for a 6-4, 6-3 victory.

The British 18-year-old generally outplayed the 19-year-old Fernandez most of the 111-minute final. Raducanu had more firepower on her serve and ground strokes.

RADUCANU A PERFECT 10

Raducanu played like a tour veteran, even if it was only her fourth tour-level event. It was her 10th straight win without dropping a set, counting her three wins in qualifying just to get into the main draw. No women’s qualifier before even had advanced to a Grand Slam final.

She has the game to win consistently on the tour, but probably not strong enough to challenge the Top 10 players and Grand Slam titlists right away. She’s now no longer under the radar. Everyone wants to beat a Grand Slam champion.

This may have been just a one-shot opening that Raducanu took full advantage of to win a Grand Slam title.  Just in case the road ahead gets bumpy, she might want to be thrifty with the $1.8 million payday.


James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award as the tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspapers. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com

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Novak Djokovic Was Pushed To An Amazing Performance

Zverev fell just short of beating the world N.1, and now Medvedev is the last obstacle still standing on his path to a Calendar Year Grand Slam

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Novak Djokovic was simply amazing Friday night.

 

True, he made a few mistakes against Alexander Zverev, but not when they counted most.

Zverev also was superb, but his mistakes came when they counted really big.

For those reasons, Djokovic is getting ready to play for the unthinkable. No one had thought much about a Calendar Grand Slam until back in June when Djokovic shocked the tennis world with a victory over Rafa Nadal at the French Open.

By the time Wimbledon came around without Roger Federer and Nadal in the field, the odds were high that Djokovic actually could achieve a Calendar Grand Slam. And then he won Wimbledon and in the process turned the race for most Grand Slam titles into a 20-20-20 battle.

ZVEREV CAME CLOSE TO SPOILING THINGS

When Federer and Nadal pulled out of the U.S. Open, all of Djokovic’s goals except a Golden Grand Slam when he lost to Zverev at the Olympics were in play.

Nearly two weeks later, Djokovic is one victory away from breaking out of the 20-20-20 deadlock as well as completing a rare Calendar Grand Slam.

Zverev pressed Djokovic into playing his very best to escape with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 victory in the U.S. Open semifinals. Only a cold start to the fifth set chilled Zverev’s hopes of spoiling Novak’s dreams.

Even after losing the first five games of the fifth set, Zverev still came close to making things interesting by winning the next two games and going to 30-30 in the eighth game.

MEDVEDEV HAS THE GAME TO WIN

Zverev’s improving game, and his big strokes and serves probably were enough to make Novak hope he won’t have to face Zverev’s hard balls again in January at the Australian Open.

That leaves only Daniil Medvedev between Djokovic and immortality.

Medvedev will have to be at his best to beat Novak. The slender 6-6 Russian can’t afford even a brief meltdown if he is to take Djokovic to the wire.

Medvedev appeared to be in awe of Djokovic when the two met in  this year’s Australian Open final.  Djokovic won that one easily in straight sets.

DANIIL IS DUE TO MAKE HIS MARK; IT’S HIS TIME

Medvedev’s game is a piece of work. He is completely unpredictable.

His whip forehand is one of the best shots in tennis. He backs it up with incredible movement.

It all depends on whether Medvedev can stick with Novak until the end. If Medvedev is still there, Novak likely will feel the heavy legs from his 214-minute bout with Zverev.

Not even Djokovic can out-move Medvedev. And the Russian’s uniquely quick serve has plenty of pop. He is due to win a Grand Slam.

But Medvedev will have to pull off a miracle against one of the smartest and slyest players tennis has ever seen if he is to win this U.S. Open.


James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award as the tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspapers. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com

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