May 7th, 2019 – Madrid: Federer Sails On Dirt Return, Osaka’s Elite Timing, Ferrer Survives

THE TENNIS JOURNAL – Tuesday 7th May, 2019.

TOURNAMENT(S) – Mutua Madrid Open (ATP, WTA.)


Having picked up some iffy results of late, top seed Novak Djokovic impressed during his defeat of Taylor Fritz on Tuesday. But a no. 4-seeded Roger Federer stole the headlines before he had even stepped out on court. And by the time the 20-time Grand Slam champion had exited Madrid’s Caja Magica – less than an hour after he had hit an ace on the second point of the match – the tennis world was rightly buzzing.

Let’s keep this snappy, as the 2009 Roland Garros champion did in his first clay-court match since 2016. Roger Federer started fast, and proceeded to essentially fly through his 6-2 6-3 defeat of former top ten player Richard Gasquet. He now leads the Frenchman 18-2 in their overall head-to-head.

People could easily brush off the 37-year-old’s stellar performance due to the apparent ‘non-rivalry’ on display here. It has to be suffocating mentally to step up for a match of this kind, when one has fallen to a certain opponent – and an opponent of this level of prestige – that many times. Additionally, 32-year-old Gasquet currently languishes below his career-high top ten status at a ranking of world no. 39. Still, he came into this encounter having competed impressively from the forecourt against rising Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, while Federer – in contrast – had not competed since lifting the Miami Open trophy over a month ago.

I myself have yet to catch the second set of Federer’s second round triumph, but the statistics speak for themselves. Three out of three break points converted, and zero break points faced. Fifteen of his 20 second serve points won, and seven of 12 second serve return points claimed.

He lost the first point of the clash on a backhand unforced error, and there was the odd rusty groundstroke throughout the 53 minute contest. But they never came at key moments. The wide serve bit the sidelines, the one-two punches culminated with unpredictably placed forehands, and it was ultimately a highly pleasing start for the no. 4 seed.

True, it is hard to tell where Federer is really at from a lone match these days. The 37-year-old can go from flying to flailing when the pressure is turned up. But the Swiss legend is underrated on a surface on which he is a major champion – a surface which he also competed on regularly as a child growing up. Free from some of the weight of expectation that clings to him on the faster surfaces, the world no. 3 has a real opportunity to swing his way to some notable results.

Federer and world no. 1 Djokovic – a 6-4 6-2 victor over Taylor Fritz, who saw off Grigor Dimitrov in round one – launched impressive starts to their respective Madrid campaigns, but WTA top seed Naomi Osaka faced a rather different route. For reasons unrelated to ranking, her clash with Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo screamed ‘danger’ from the offset, and it had the Japanese star predictably weighed down in the second set.

Osaka has thrown in one or two unusual losses in recent weeks. From two points away from the straight sets victory, she fell to a 4-6 7-6(4) 6-3 defeat of Su-Wei Hsieh in Miami – the tournament after she had been thrashed 6-3 6-1 by Belinda Bencic as the defending Indian Wells champion.

Yet on the whole, there is a continuing theme for Naomi Osaka on the current leg of her tennis journey. Firstly, it is the crafty, non-power players give her the most grief. And secondly, she rises for the biggest moments – which a genuine sign of an elite competitor.

This second point is mostly true of her overall tournament results. The 21-year-old’s three career titles have come at Indian Wells, the US Open and the Australian Open. That said, it is becoming more of a fixture within her individual matches. In her only Stuttgart clash two weeks ago, she resurrected from the virtual dead to take down Donna Vekic in three sets. And in Madrid, she streamrolled through the decider to ensure that world no. 73 Sorribes Tormo bit the dust: 7-6(5) 3-6 6-0.

An utterly predictable outcome – and it is, perhaps, credit to the champion’s mentality that Osaka is developing that this was the case. Sorribes Tormo is renowned for frustrating opposition on the dirt. The 22-year-old never out-hits them, either with her serve or groundstrokes. Instead, the Spaniard slices the backhand relentlessly and loops forehand after forehand back into the court in efforts to make her opponents spray long or wide as they strain to hit through her defenses. After narrowly edging the opening set, Osaka fell for this trap in the second, and let Sorribes Tormo bog her down – feebly handing over the equaliser on an unimpressive break of serve.

But even then, there was a distinct feeling of prolonging the inevitable. While Sorribes Tormo opted for a coaching visit, Osaka withdrew to the bathrooms for a long talk to her own worst enemy: Herself. When she emerged, she had a looked of sheer concentration on her face, and a straight-up thumping was on the cards after she had opened the decider with a fighting break of serve.

This is not the first time I have drawn similarities between Naomi Osaka and the woman she beat in the US Open final – a woman who has also struggled in first and second sets against players she should have slaughtered, yet risen on adrenaline and sheer willpower to find her groove and close things out. And I am certain it will not be the last time, either.

Osaka and Federer were two of several top names to stamp their mark on Tuesday’s action, but a competitor who has long left the realms of the world’s top three was one of the brightest stars of the day.

David Ferrer is set to retire after his Madrid Open campaign is through, and the possibility of that happening on Tuesday was a strong one. Roberto Bautista Agut was one of the most consistent ATP performers of the opening months of the season – with a singles trophy, a Grand Slam quarterfinal, and multiple victories over Novak Djokovic to his name this year alone. Couple this with the fact he is Ferrer’s fellow Spaniard and had won their most recent meeting, and the 2013 French Open finalist was under real pressure as he faced this second round match-up in Madrid.

It would have been ever so easy for the 37-year-old to get tight. After all, Andy Roddick – a man who contested 11 career matches against Ferrer – openly spoke about how he was fighting back tears in the closing points of his final career match, experiencing flashbacks as he thought of what had led up to that moment.

There were plenty of chances for David Ferrer to crack on Tuesday against a strong-hitting, net-charging opponent who went toe-to-toe with the non-seeder in an all-court battle that made a mockery of Ferrer’s lowly current ranking. The biggest of these came in the deciding set – when, having broken for the 3-2 lead, the Spaniard required a visit from the trainer for an apparent leg issue.

Yet the Spaniard competed in this match the way he has competed in every match throughout his career: treating every point as if it were the first, the last and the only point that mattered, ever. His defense at times verged on insanity, and his deep placement of groundstrokes paved the way for him to come forwards. His hands at the net and his pace around the court eventually got the better of Bautista Agut – a player with, hopefully, many years of competition stretching out before him. Ferrer’s days are numbered, but his 6-4 4-6 6-4 triumph gave little hint that this was – and is – the case.

The sun is setting. World no. 4 Alexander Zverev is up next, and while it is a highly winnable clash (Ferrer having already beaten the German this season, and Zverev struggling for footing in 2019), the draw could have been kinder.

But one thing is certain. When the sun has set, the fire of David Ferrer’s unquenchable competitive spirit will burn on: forever blazing in history as a reminder that even if you are not destined to be the greatest, sheer will, commitment and hard work can make you one of them.

And that is a legacy as valuable as any Grand Slam title.

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