Entering Rod Laver Arena as a tennis player on an Australian summer's evening must feel a lot like stepping into a sauna of fervent energy. The hurrahs are all around you, and it's hard to tell who the swells of faces are pulling for when your opponent enters the ring beside you because they are still cheering just as uproariously. But one thing is for sure: regardless of who the favorite is, the crowd at the Australian Open, deemed the "Happy Slam," sure love the thrill of a superb tennis match.
The fans in the famous Australian venue, and the ones watching at home, definitely got that on Saturday night when Switzerland's World No. 2 Roger Federer and Australia's World No. 43 Bernard Tomic took to the court. Having been considerably hyped and speculated over, the embodiment of anticipation in the air was a cliché to be expected during the third-round clash. And by the looks of things, no one went home disappointed.
After all of the vacillating levels of tennis throughout the day (seeds such as Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga made it through, while other favorites like Juan Martin Del Potro and Marin Cilic crashed out), it was obvious the crowd was ready for a big finale to cap it all off. So when the Aussie Tomic walked into center court, the applause was thunderous. And then the Swiss Federer followed; surprisingly, the crowd was just as vociferous.
Why The Swiss Maestro Prevailed
Smooth sailing for Roger Federer; that's often something you'll hear stated casually by television commentators after the 31-year-old has taken a two-sets-to-love lead over an opponent. It is an opportunity to enjoy the poetry in motion that is Federer's game, and a moment to breathe a sigh of relief for Federer fans everywhere.
After putting everything he had into the first two sets, the young Tomic could not expend the same level of tactical and physical energy at the beginning of the third set that he had for the previous hour and a half: it was obvious that he was spent.
Federer's 6-4, 7-6 (7-5), 6-1 victory over Bernard Tomic was a reminder to tennis fans of where he stands: still a master of his craft, still creating magic with his racket and still one of the favorites to win the 2013 Australian Open.
From a technical and statistically significant standpoint, his win can be summed up by three key factors: an unwavering and magnificent backhand, consistent pressure on second service returns, and, last but far from least, experience.
It was clear that from the get-go, Tomic was trying to break down the Federer backhand, as many players attempt to do when they go up against the great Swiss. To compensate heavy hitting from the Aussie, Roger was sacrificing pace for more height and depth off his backhand wing. His consistency of shot never broke down: Federer had only ten unforced errors off of his backhand in the entire match, a remarkably low number, given that he hit twice as many backhands as he did forehands in his third round encounter. Because of this, Federer was able to engineer himself junctures to become aggressive, either with his awe-inspiring forehand or an impeccably timed net approach. The ability to neutralize some of the crucial rallies of the first and second sets with this shot was paramount to his eventual success. This was most definitely a defining statistic for Roger on the night, because without the dependability of his backhand, the outcome of the match might have been a changed affair.
Is Federer's backhand better now than ever before?
In looking at the second service success of each player over the course of the match from start to finish, chances are you won't extract much information, as their numbers were very similar (Tomic's 42 percent second serves won isn't much worse than Federer's 45). But the chief indication in terms of second serve proficiency isn't detectable unless you are only looking at the second set statistics alone. In the critically close middle set, Bernard was only able to convert 39 percent of his second serves into points won, while Federer struggled considerably less, winning 67 percent of the points on his. When the borders are so close in a tightly contested set like this one, those numbers are game-altering.
Finally, and not unexpectedly, this third round match came down to Roger Federer's know-how. The Swiss Maestro has always possessed an innate understanding and intuition of how the game should be played given his adversary. It is as though he is able to analyze his opponent across the net as he is striking the ball, adjusting to the most marginal of changes to give himself a more tangible chance at winning the point.
So the trend continued. When Tomic began to huff and puff, thoroughly straining himself particularly in the second half of the second set, Federer used his observation and understanding of the situation to acclimate. He was able to produce a winning formula by way of blocking back thunderous rips by the Aussie instead of trying to force winners from his side of the court. It was with this insightfulness and subsequent adaptation that Roger Federer was able to knock off a red-lining Bernard Tomic in the third round of the 2013 Australian Open.
How These Stats Influence Fed's Path at the Aussie Open
Attempting to evaluate these assets with regard to some of the tournament's biggest favorites in Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray is unsuitable at this point in the Australian Open; those match-ups are often influenced or entirely overshadowed by the unpredictability factor seized by top players in the latter stages of big title runs. Not only that, but champions like Roger also usually find themselves playing into form over the course of a fortnight, improving and polishing their skill set with meticulous precision.
Instead, it is more beneficial to examine the upcoming rounds in step by step fashion, particularly in Federer's case, as he had the misfortune of being placed in an especially arduous quarter of the draw.
Federer's next opponent is yet another standout contender, the giant Canadian, Milos Raonic. Bigger serving, heavier forehands and more undeniable pressure; the Swiss will again have the challenge of handling all of the factors that go with the territory of playing a young gun. And did I mention much bigger serving? (Raonic is averaging a first serve speed of 124 mph at the 2013 Australian Open and has maxed out with serves as lightning-quick as 142 mph in Melbourne this year).
The difference in his match with Raonic will be the length of points off the baseline. While Tomic was content to hang in long-winded rallies with Federer, Milos will look for a one-two punch combination, a more measured and energy-conserving approach. As a result, the Swiss will try to lengthen the points, stretching the somewhat awkwardly large Raonic and testing his side-to-side and front-to-back movement.
Still, besides his viciously enormous serve, the characteristic of concern for Federer should be Raonic's fortuitous nature; that is, he is endowed with an unbreakable focus that has propelled him to 15th in the world. All three matches that these two have played went the distance, and in two of the three matches Federer and Raonic have contested, the final set was decided in a tiebreak. Though Federer came out victorious in all of them, tiebreakers are always a tricky prospect.
If you aren't expecting to see at least one tiebreak when these two clash on Monday, then you haven't seen Milos Raonic serve a tennis ball. To put it lightly, the 6'5" Raonic hit the third fastest serve in tennis history last year at 155.3 mph, and he's still putting on muscle at age 22.
Why is this not a problem for the Swiss Maestro? Because Federer's tiebreak status is yet another immense addition to his gargantuan legacy: he owns the best career tiebreak record in tennis history.
It's the same improvisational prowess that Roger Federer showed us in his match against Bernard Tomic that will get him through against Raonic, but not as easily and without as many glimpses of shot-making brilliance: when returning a serve like Milos', he won't have as many chances to light up the highlight reel, aside from one or two return winners off of some rocketed Raonic serves without enough direction on them (think of how Federer used to handle Roddick's aimless bombs).
While Federer will need to employ consistency off the backhand wing, particularly the shallow slice when he is being hammered with Raonic forehands in order to force a net approach by the Canadian, it will be his second-serve return of the key factors discussed above that will make the overall result favor the Swiss champion. Without many openings, if any at all, on the Raonic first serve, it will be imperative that Federer convert on the second serve occasions he is offered. And as he did in the critical moments of his match against Tomic, Roger will again deliver.
Regardless of how many sets end in blood-pumping tiebreakers, Federer will complete his fourth round victory over Milos Raonic in four sets and extend his streak of consecutive grand slam quarterfinal appearances to 35. It seems that for the time being, there are still just too many variables to grasp for the student to school the teacher.