Federer faces future – and gets through

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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

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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.

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The first set sent by fairly quickly, but Khachanov dug in during the second set and nearly forced a third. (TennisTV)

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.

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How many pics has Federer posed for at the net like this, against youngsters he has never played before? Dozens. He usually wins. (TennisTV)

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. 

Khachanov and 19-year-old Andrey Rublev, whom he defeated in the quarters, both train at the 4Slam Academy. Blanco is in the middle; Rublev’s coach Fernando Vicente on the right. (TennisTV)

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. 🙂

Roger Federer posts win No. 1,100 in Halle

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Most – perhaps even Roger Federer himself – expected him to reach ATP Tour victory No. 1,100 last week in Stuttgart.

Instead, the 18-time Grand Slam champion got to that nice round number Tuesday in Halle, Germany, in the first round of the Gerry Weber Open.

Perhaps it was appropriate; Federer has won the tournament eight times.

He defeated a game but overmatched Yuichi Sugita of Japan 6-3, 6-1 in just 52 minutes. And about the only teeny fly in the Fed ointment was the fact that Federer was broken in the second set after leading 5-0, 40-love and having three match points.

No matter; Federer broke Sugita in the next game to close out the win.

He now trails all-time leader Jimmy Connors by 156 career match victories.

One of the TennisTV commentators, perhaps a little overexcited, proclaimed that Federer could beat that mark. But that would be out of the realm of realistic, especially with Federer unlikely to play anything near a “full” schedule of events going forward in his career.

Even if he duplicated his 20-2 record so far in in the second half of 2017, Federer would still have to post two healthy, full seasons somewhere near 70 match victories per season. That’s a threshold he has reached only twice (and barely) since his all-world 92-5 campaign back in 2006. He would then approach the record somewhere just before his 39th birthday.

Never say never. But the math is difficult.

Team Federer looked slightly concerned towards the end of the match. But the 5-0 game on Federer’s serve was a mere blip, it turned out.

Federer hit 27 winners and made just 12 unforced errors in beating Sugita. And probably four of those errors came in that 5-0 game. With this second official match on the grass, even if the opponent didn’t quite have the level last week’s victor, Tommy Haas, was able to produce on the day, he seemed to work out some kinks.

Federer over-relied on his topspin backhand in that match against Haas, especially at the beginning. It was what propelled him to his titles on the hard courts in the first part of the season after a six-month layoff. And he clearly has all the confidence in the world in it now. But on the grass, the slice will need to come back into play.

He began using it more late in the Haas match. And he seemed to get the mix just right against Sugita.

The opponent was a last-minute surprise. Federer was due to play Yen-Hsun Lu of Taipei in the first round. But Lu withdrew and Federer found himself against the lucky loser.

A career first for Sugita

Imagine it from Sugita’s point of view. 

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It was the first Sugita had ever faced a member of the Big Four in his career. And as a lucky loser, he didn’t have much time to wrap his head around it.

The Japanese veteran reached a career high of No. 66 last week. At 28, he’s playing the best of tennis of his career after qualifying, defeating Pablo Carreño Busta, Richard Gasquet and Tommy Robredo and reaching the quarter-finals of the main draw in Barcelona last month.  He won a big Challenger on grass in Surbiton two weeks ago.

And yet, he has never faced either Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray or Stan Wawrinka during a career that began in 2006. The highest-ranked player he had ever played was Canadian Milos Raonic, and he took a set off him twice.

Suddenly, Sugita found himself in the main draw. That wass the good news. The bad news is that he had to face arguably the greatest grass-court player ever, on grass.

Sugita didn’t give up. And he hit his fair share of impressive shots. But 2017 grass-court Federer landed in Halle Tuesday. And there wasn’t much Sugita could do.

Zverev next up

Federer’s second-round opponent will be Germany’s Mischa Zverev. And that promises an entirely different dynamic, as the older brother of Alexander is a relentless old-school serve-volleyer – even on surfaces other than grass.

The two played in the Halle quarterfinals four years ago, when Zverev was going through a difficult period. And it was a tough day for Zverev, who didn’t get a game.

Their much-anticipated quarter-final match at the Australian Open this year went a little better. Still, Federer won in straight sets – 6-1, 7-5, 6-2 – in a match that may well look very much like this one, stylistically. Federer came to net just 15 times against Sugita; there’s a good chance that number goes up in the next round.

(Screenshots from TennisTV)

ATP preview – Week of June 19

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What used to be the first official week of grass-court play, with the longstanding ATP events in Halle, Germany and at Queen’s Club in London, is now the second week. So grass is in full swing.

And except for the players who are nursing injuries, all of the top 20 are in action with the notable exceptions of French Open champion Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

No wonder. Each tournament offers nearly 2 million Euros in prize money, and both venues are lovely. The Halle tournament features a retractable roof atop Gerry Weber Stadium. So it’s rather more weather-proof.

The forecast is for temporatures in the 80s and very little rain in the forecast in London, which is welcome news. Conditions will be similar in Halle although the chances of rain increase next weekend. By then, with the roof, it will no longer be a factor.

Here’s a look at who’s playing where, who’s not playing, and how the draws may shake out.

Aegon Championships

Place: London, England
Dates: June 19-25, 2017
Prize money: €1,966,095
Category: ATP 500
Draw sizes: S32 – D16
Surface: Grass

American Jack Sock, who was the No. 8 seed, was a late scratch with a knee injury. So his good pal Nick Kyrgios (who was sporting a sleeve on his knee in practice) became the No. 9 seed.

The early rounds feature a few country vs. country clashes: Janko Tipsarevic vs. Viktor Troicki, No. 5 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Adrian Mannarino and, notably, No. 1 seed and defending champion Andy Murray vs. Aljaz Bedene.

Bedene appeared to be planning to play the Halle tournament. But having received direct entry into Queen’s Club because of some withdrawals there, he made the switch to his home turf.

From the very first round, in addition to the matches mentioned above, there are some high-level clashes.

No. 2 seed Stan Wawrinka, trying to build towards a first Wimbledon title, drew Feliciano Lopez of Spain in the first round. Always tough on grass, Lopez is in the final Sunday in Stuttgart.

Milos Raonic, a finalist in 2016, will play Aussie wild card Thanasi Kokkinakis. The Murray-Raonic final was, it turned out, a perfect preview for the Wimbledon final three weeks later.

No. 4 seed Marin Cilic will play big-serving John Isner, having just lost in ‘s-Hertogenbosch to big-serving Ivo Karlovic. And No. 6 seed Grigor Dimitrov, who is no kind of form, gets feisty American Ryan Harrison in the first round.

The tournament will heat up from the very first balls struck.

Queen’s Club has undergone some renovations this year, adding some 2,000 seats to the stadium court. Given it’s in a very residential area, the improvements there have been impressive.

However, they may well have weather-jinxed themselves with this Tweet.

Projected quarterfinal matches:

[1] Murray vs. [5] Tsonga
[4] Cilic vs. [9] Kyrgios
[3] Raonic vs. [6] Dimitrov
[2] Wawrinka vs. [7] Berdych

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Gerry Weber Open

HallecourtPlace: Halle, Germany
Dates: June 19-25, 2017
Prize money: €1,966,095
Category: ATP 500
Draw sizes: S32 – D16
Surface: Grass

The true grass-court home of Roger Federer will see the Wimbledon maestro try to get more matches in. He lost his first grass match to old friend Tommy Haas in Stuttgart, Germany last week.

Some of the more dangerous opponents – young guns Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, shotmakers Gaël Monfils and Dustin Brown, are in the other half of the draw.

(A hopeful sign that Monfils is healthy: he just entered the final grass tuneup in Eastbourne next week).

The strength of field isn’t what it is at Queen’s, although the prize money is the same.

Draw quirk: Kei Nishikori and Fernando Verdasco, a random pairing in the doubles, were drawn to meet each other in the first round of singles. To add insult to (draw) injury, they drew the No. 1 seeds in doubles in the team of Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo.

First-round matches to watch: [5] Gaël Monfils vs. countryman Richard Gasquet, and wild-card Tommy Haas vs. Bernard Tomic. 

Projected quarterfinal matches:

[1] Federer vs. [6] Pouille (in the Stuttgart final Sunday)
[3] Nishikori vs. [8] Ramos-Viñolas
[4] A. Zverev vs. [7] Bautista-Agut
[2] Thiem vs. [5] Monfils