Roger Federer’s record in first career meetings against the future stars of the game is impressive.
There’s a particular challenge he sets for himself, against a rare opponent he hasn’t faced, one who comes in with “Next-Gen” hype. He gets up for it, and admits that. After all these years, something new will always get your attention.
The 35-year-old’s 6-4, 7-6 (5) victory over 21-year-old Russian Karen Khachanov Saturday in Halle was no different than most of them. But it wasn’t without its rough spots.
Khachanov, coached by Spaniard Galo Blanco, has come on in the last couple of months to such an extent, he’ll find himself seeded at Wimbledon the very first time he ever plays in the main draw there.
He’ll be at No. 34 on Monday, a career-best ranking. But with the injury absences of David Goffin and Pablo Carreño Busta, he’ll move into the top 32.
So his grass-court experience and expertise is limited. But he still gave Federer everything he could handle.
Federer’s first Next-Gen matches
Federer chose to receive to start the match. And after three straight breaks to begin the first set, the rest went at warp-Federer speed. It took 33 minutes, but it probably felt like 33 seconds to Khachanov.
As with very opponent who squares off with Federer for the first time – especially on grass – the speed at which he plays, the mere moments between points, and the efficiency with which the points are terminated takes some adjusting to.
The Swiss star was somewhere at times – it’s not clear quite where.
After the first game of the second set he actually sat down on the changeover, which isn’t done. Chair umpire Damien Dumusois was laughing; Federer gave him a wry smirk.
Maybe he was just in the zone.
From six unforced errors in the first set, Federer clearly felt the pressure in the second. He had to go for more, because his opponent was playing better. And he was missing more.
But they remained on serve.
It was rolling along until crunch time, 4-4 in the second set. At 15-30, Federer gave Khachanov a chance to sink himself by firing a passing shot right at him, as hard as he could. The Russian butchered the forehand volley and after he was broken, bemoaned both the missed volley and the dodgy bounce that led to Federer taking control of the point.
But … when Federer served for the match, looking for his ninth Halle title and his 11th final, he played a poor game. And Khachanov, as big a hitter as you’ll find, played some admirable defence on the break point and took it.
From serving primarily to the corners, Federer began mixing up his serve a little. His opponent, who moves very well for a big man, had been reading it. But when Federer got out of that rhythm, he began missing his spots a little more.
Khachanov had two set points in the 5-6 game, but couldn’t make them.
Again, at crunch time in the tiebreak, Federer challenged his younger rival.
A serve-volley at 3-3, going toe-to-toe with him on the forehand side at 4-5 and then – a changeup. Federer called on the body serve, followed by a sweet volley.
Khachanov nearly made a desperate one-handed passing shot. But it didn’t quite find the mark.
Close one, but onto the final
And that was it. Federer escaped although he could see as clearly as anyone why Khachanov has enjoyed such a rapid rise.
From losing in the first round in Stuttgart, the Swiss (who secured a top-four seed at Wimbledon) will aim for the title on Sunday.
He will face either another rising star in Alexander Zverev, or older rival Richard Gasquet.
As it happens, Gasquet was one of only two young, rising players to defeat Federer in their first career meeting.
Federer’s road in Halle has always been smooth. He has not faced many top players at all in rolling to eight titles. PeRFect preparation. 🙂
Federer is 58-6 in Halle. Two of his 64 matches have come against Top 10 players; none in 12 years.https://t.co/gf5MmIVfsU
— Carl Bialik (@CarlBialik) June 24, 2017