Kei Nishikori defeated Roger Federer in the round of 16 at the Mutua Madrid Open 6-4, 1-6 and 6-2. Federer was broken early in the first set and never looked close to breaking back. He held easily through most of the set, serving out several games at love, but the one break was enough for Nishikori to take the first.
If the Swiss looked uncomfortable in the first set, he looked more at ease in the second. Federer broke Nishikori twice in the second set seeming to overcome his apparent rustiness. It should be noted that Federer squandered three consecutive break points at 2-1 in the second set before finally clinching the game to take the lead 3-1.
Federer's second set play seemed to confirm the theory that now, in the later stages of his career, it takes him a set or so to warm up.
Unfortunately for Federer's supporters, the third set was wrought with errors similar to those he fell prey to in the first. After a blinding 32 minute second set, it looked as if the Japanese player had been routed.
However, Nishikori held on to claim a victory that is certainly up there with the most important wins in his career thus far. The top-ranked Japanese player stayed composed throughout the match and exploited Federer's backhand.
Undoubtedly, unforced backhand errors were the primary cause for Federer's loss. Both his slice and flat one-handed backhands were consistently going long, and there were too many shanks for a player of his calibre.
Federer lost the first set on a mishit backhand that drew "oohs" from all around the stands. This is not to underwrite Nishikori's deft performance, whose down the line backhand was an incredible weapon throughout the match.
Federer's loss is indicative of his reliance on fast courts. He takes advantage of offensive play, going for winners and taking the ball on the rise. With slower courts, a shot that is usually a winner for Federer is retrievable for his opponent, forcing him to engage in longer rallies.
Nishikori is very quick and made several great-gets from Federer's wide and drop shots. Especially against the other top five men, the longer points last the less likely it is that Federer will win it. He tends to win matches by ending points early, rather than outlasting his opponent.
Federer's genius lies not in his physicality or sheer strength, but in his vision and his ability to create angles and pull off shots other players would not think of. Clay is more suited to defensive players and grinders, neither of which are part of Federer's persona. Clay's slowness undermines Federer's creative abilities and the effectiveness of his finesse shots.
Federer has not yet played a tournament on clay, whereas Nishikori is coming fresh off the Barcelona Open where he lost in the round of 16 to Spaniard Albert Ramos. The last tournament Federer played was Indian Wells in March on hard courts. His match fitness was definitely a problem today, in terms of both comfort with the surface and being in tournament mode.
Even with the abundance of wild backhands, Federer still managed to produce his usual moments of brilliance that have made him such a crowd-pleaser in his over 14 years on tour. Painting the lines with his drop shot slices and on the run forehands, the 17-time Grand Slam champion demonstrated that he is still capable of playing world class tennis.
Federer's greatest asset is that he always goes for his shots and he does not know the meaning of "playing safe." Until the very last point, the match was up for grabs—you can never write Federer off.
Last year, Federer won the Madrid Open, so this loss has implications for his ranking. On Monday, Federer's points for last year's victory will drop off. Andy Murray is only 100 points behind Federer.
Federer's tournament schedule has been noticeably shorter compared to previous years. Madrid is one of only three tournaments he is playing in between the Australian and Roland Garros. Pundits have speculated that this year's pared-down schedule would hurt Federer more than it would help him.
A round of 16 loss is not shattering, but he will need to prove himself in Rome next week.