The eerie silence of the crowd in center court at the Ahoy Rotterdam sporting arena would have made it clear even to the least tennis-saavy spectator that something entirely unexpected was happening. Underdog Julien Benneteau was in the process of claiming revenge for his epic 2012 Wimbledon defeat to one of the world's best in Roger Federer.
World No. 2 and 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer crashed out in the quarterfinals of the 2013 ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam on Friday afternoon with a scoreline of 6-3, 7-5, losing to the world's 39th ranked Benneteau of France. Federer had been the defending champion at this tournament from his finals win last year over Argentina's Juan Martin Del Potro (who had made it through to the semifinals earlier in the day's play with an easy 6-3, 6-4 win over Jarkko Nieminen).
Throughout the upset, Switzerland's Federer looked weary, distracted and uncharacteristically uninterested, despite owning a 4-1 career head-to-head mark against his challenger. In stark contrast to Federer was Benneteau; the Frenchman was bouncing, leaping and unrelentingly aggressive from the start of the match.
Benneteau, known not for his singles performances but rather for his prowess in the doubles—where he's racked up six career titles with various French partners—was the ultimate aggressor in the quarterfinal matchup, a role normally played by Federer.
In fact, Benneteau has yet to win a singles crown on the ATP World Tour. To put this into perspective, his Swiss opponent has won 76.
And yet Federer clearly struggles against the innately offensive nature of Benneteau's game, as evidenced by their third round encounter at last year's Wimbledon Championships, where Benneteau led two sets to love. But the Frenchman wasn't able to close out the match and opened the door for Federer to show his legendary form. Federer would fight back to win 4-6, 6-7(3), 6-2, 7-6(6), 6-1, and went on to claim the Wimbledon trophy a week and a half later.
Friday's match was an entirely different story in terms of quality, excitement and—most puzzling of all—competitiveness.
Federer was broken three times in the first set (five times in all over the course of the match), looking uneasy early on as Benneteau kept himself steady and focused with strong, consistent serving and controlled aggression. Though the Swiss Maestro would reclaim one of the breaks back, constant pressure off the return from the energetic and surging Frenchman would result in a 6-3 first set for Benneteau.
It looked like an absolute runaway at the start of the second as the unseeded Frenchman again broke Federer to open up a 4-1 lead, but tennis fans more than likely knew all too well that a surrender would never be in sight. Federer broke back—yet still appeared unenthusiastic—and leveled the match and 4-4.
In the most crucial part of the match for the Frenchman, Benneteau saved three break points in the second set at five games all, retaining momentum and laying all the pressure firmly on the Swiss' shoulders.
The burden would prove to be too great for a dulled Federer. Surprisingly, as the tennis world has grown so very accustomed to the Swiss' unsurpassed level of consistency, Federer lost his serve on a backhand error up the line, prompting an ecstatic Benneteau to throw his arms in the air in celebration as the one hour and 20 minute match came to a fizzling end.
This wasn't a sign of a new generation on the move, as both men, at age 31, would be nearing admittance into retirement homes in "tennis years."
In reality, the numbers make an assessment of the relatively short-lived encounter quite straightforward: Federer served poorly from start to finish and whiffed at shot after shot, while Benneteau took advantage of every opportunity that was presented to him as a result.
Federer served a disappointing 56 percent of first serves in, and when forced to hit a second delivery, was only able to win 33 percent of the points (and a terribly dismal 21 percent in the first set alone), a truly nightmarish statistic for a player who is normally able to defend upwards of 60 percent of his second serves.
Not only was his level of serving incredibly low to his lofty standards, but Fed also managed to toss four double faults into a combined 11 service games, a shockingly high number of service errors for the Swiss.
Benneteau stayed the course and took the action to the net with much success throughout the match. Benny converted on 62 percent of break points, an exceptional rate in the men's game, though several of the conversions were attributed to unforced errors off the Swiss' racket.
Most impressive from the Frenchman was his mental composure: though he's always competed well against Federer, and has entered each contest with a strong and positive attitude, Benneteau has always struggled in crunch time to come through in the biggest moments of their matches. Today was a different story, and it showed in Benneteau's beaming glee following what can be measured as one of the biggest wins of his career.
In the end, the stats and scoreline aren't what matter, at least on paper: Julien Benneteau moves on to the semifinals of the 2013 Rotterdam Open with growing confidence from a massive win and a new found hope of winning his first singles title, and he should receive full credit for his efforts.
Roger Federer, on the other hand, will go back to the drawing board to address sluggish play and sloppy ground-strokes in preparation for his next appearance on the court at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, which begins on February 25th. As the defending champion at Rotterdam, Federer will lose 410 points from his ranking total come Monday morning. He'll also be looking to defend a title in Dubai from last year.
Naturally, a lot of questions will loom and linger around the Swiss champion in the next couple of weeks. Only time will tell where Federer's game and form are following this baffling loss.
Ultimately, regardless of where this quarterfinal result takes the victorious Benneteau or the fallen Federer in their respective seasons, this off-pace and disorienting match isn't going to be broadcast in syndication on ESPN anytime soon.