Roger Federer showed some championship experience denying the hard-charging Milos Raonic 4-6, 7-5, 7-6(4) in second round nailbiter at the Madrid Tennis Masters Wednesday.
It wasn’t the greatest display of tennis, but I thought Federer mixed it up just enough to throw off the powerful Canadian and get through. On the quick, slick blue clay, Federer smartly kept the points short, played slices and spent a lot of time at the net. And even though his netgame wasn’t up to par it paid off in the end for Roger who was playing his first match in six weeks.
“I thought I could take it to him by serving and volleying and it worked a bit,” Federer told the AP. “I definitely started to get a better read on his serve and to get into more baseline rallies, make him hit more shots on his own serve.”
Raonic, who can and did dominate early with his serve and massive forehand, started to crack in the second set. The 21-year-old had won an eye-popping 44 straight points on his first serve in the tournament until Federer finally broke through in that second. And eventually the Swiss gnawed his way to a break and the set to level.
The quick points pace continued in the third. Roanic had chances for a likely finishing break but Federer came up with some very timely serves. Then serving 4-5 in the breaker Raonic caved (choked!) missing a sitter mid-court forehand and that was that. A rusty Federer advances.
“I had a tough first set and one bad game that cost me the set really,” said Federer. “He could swing big on my service games and I couldn’t do that much on his but I was getting more balls back as the match went on. I played a good tie-breaker overall.”
As for Raonic, what impressed me was just how composed he was. He never appeared to get too down, or too up for that matter. Much like Federer, he was so focused throughout the affair, which is quite impressive for someone just 21.
“I felt like I was on top throughout the whole match,” said Raonic who belted 21 aces. “I was there doing the right things and it was good. I will probably be more happy with the whole outcome in a few days but now is not the right time.”
And again with his weaponry, the little doubt Raonic’s going to be in the Top 10, likely Top 5 and I think he’ll be in the Hall of Fame one day after winning multiple Slams. Of the new kids – Bernard Tomic, Ryan Harrison, Grigor Dimitrov – Raonic is clearly the cream.
However, watching the match I was struck by how poorly Federer was returning. He also had trouble with Andy Roddick in Miami and of course John Isner at Davis Cup. All three are excellent servers, but the old Federer use to handle those big servers. Frankly, I still consider Federer the greatest returner I’ve ever seen – he may not hit flashy winners like Andre Agassi, but he was oh so tough to ace and somehow had the uncanny, innate ability to read and return even the toughest serves. But now at 30 maybe he’s lost a little bit of that eye.
The good news tomorrow and likely for the remainder of the event is he won’t face any more guys who can crush it 140mph. Up next is Richard Gasquet who’s been playing some good tennis this spring. The Frenchman beat Federer at Rome last year and previously in Monte Carlo, so it won’t be easy. But I expect Federer to again get Gasquet on the move – so important on these quick courts – and take advantage in the big points.
“Right now, I’m just playing good tennis and it’s a big win because wins like this can create great things,” said Federer. “It was pretty much a big struggle for me tonight but the level is pretty good and I’m happy where I am in the season.”
Earlier, Rafael Nadal destroyed Nikolay Davydenko 6-2, 6-2. I only saw a few highlights and it’s the usual fare from Nadal. Rafa has now won 22 straight clay matches, 11 this year and all 22 sets!
“I played much better than I expected,” offered Nadal.
Also on Wednesday, a number of contenders scored good wins. Juan Martin Del Potro stayed hot defeating Mikhail Youzhny in straights. Delpo moves on to face fellow big man Marin Cilic who slayed John Isner in two breakers.
JW Tsonga dashed the hopes of 20-year-old Ryan Harrison and Gael Monfils, David Ferrer, Gilles Simon and Fernando Verdasco were also winners.
In tomorrow’s key matches, it’s Federer v. Gasquet, Nadal-Verdasco, DelPo-Cilic and Novak Djokovic-Stan Wawrinka.
Federer, Nadal and Delpo should get through but Djokovic is a question mark. If he’s still that unsure about the center court surface, he could be on the outs against Wawrinka.
Speaking of the courts, it was a much better afternoon for the tournament and Ion Tiriac who celebrated his 73rd birthday Wednesday. Nadal is still not happy with the slickness of the courts and Federer remarked on the spped.
“These are some of the fastest courts on tour, I expected that a few shots would decide the match, that’s what it was like back in the days of (Pete) Sampras, (Boris) Becker and (Stefan) Edberg,” Federer said to the AP. “That’s the way it was tonight.”
As a lead-up to the French, that’s not how it’s suppose to be. Unfortunately with the speed these courts are playing at I’m not sure what real benefit the players get from this event as preparation for the French Open if the surface is bears little similarity to Roland Garros.
The women’s tournament is also taking shape. Tomorrow Serena Williams gets a rematch against the woman who knocked her out of Miami, Caroline Wozniacki. And Maria Sharapova is also on center court against lefty Lucie Safarova.
Tennis Channel is back on tomorrow with full coverage from 7am ET of the men’s event.
THURSDAY MADRID SCHEDULE
MANOLO SANTANA start 10:50 am
L Safarova (CZE) vs  M Sharapova (RUS) – WTA
 C Wozniacki (DEN) vs  S Williams (USA) – WTA
Not Before 3:15 PM
 F Verdasco (ESP) vs  R Nadal (ESP) – ATP
Not Before 6:45 PM
 R Federer (SUI) vs  R Gasquet (FRA) – ATP
 N Djokovic (SRB) vs S Wawrinka (SUI) – ATP
ARANTXA SANCHEZ VICARIO start 1:00 pm
 A Dolgopolov (UKR) vs  J Tsonga (FRA) – ATP
Not Before 3:30 PM
M Cilic (CRO) vs  J del Potro (ARG) – ATP
Not Before 4:30 PM
 N Almagro (ESP) vs  D Ferrer (ESP) – ATP
 G Simon (FRA) vs  J Tipsarevic (SRB) – ATP
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