The contrasting fortunes at the very top and the very bottom of the draw were thrown into sharp relief in the second round of the Australian Open "down under."
At the top sat Rafael Nadal, hoping to play his first complete match of the tournament. At the bottom was Roger Federer, already nicely warmed up by his opening three-set victory and hoping for a straightforward follow-up in his first night-time match.
Their progress took very different paths.
For a man who professed to being “not perfect” in his health when he arrived in Melbourne—having picked up a virus in Doha—Nadal looked in very fine fettle indeed when he launched his campaign on his half of the draw. He was kept out on court for just 11 games by an injured Marcos Daniel and intended to make more of an impression in Melbourne’s midday sunshine when it came to Round Two.
Metaphorically, he barely broke sweat, though in practice he was soaked from brow to calf.
Clad in ever-more-drenched hibiscus red, he pounded his lasso of a forehand to each corner of the court at will, ably assisted by a Ryan Sweeting who seemed unable to come up with enough variety to force his opponent out of his groove.
It took just 28 minutes for Nadal to take the first set 6-2. In the process, he won 13 out of 13 points on his first serve, the last one being an ace of 130 mph.
In the second set, Sweeting found a little more power and placement but his back-of-the-court tactics were no way to beat Nadal, who can reach and counter-punch almost every baseline play. The Spaniard simply lifted his game, served even better, and secured the second set, 6-1.
The Melbourne temperature rose to its highest of the tournament as the match headed past 2 p.m., and Nadal was determined to crank up the heat even more by pouring all over Sweeting like molten lava. With the advantage of opening serve in the third set and a quick break in the second game, Nadal rushed to a 4-0 lead.
Then, for a moment, Nadal’s concentration wavered: It looked as though the angle of the sun disrupted his ball toss. Whatever the cause, a double fault and a wayward forehand gave Sweeting his first break points and he seized the moment. It was only a moment, though, as Nadal broke back and promptly served out the set and the match, 6-1.
In his usual attention-deflecting style, Nadal said of his performance, “I think I played a solid match. A few mistakes with the backhand, that’s all.”
The extraordinary reality, however, is that he has now won 23 Major matches in a row.
With disingenuous modesty, Nadal deflected the mantle of "favorite" onto Federer before the Australian Open even began, and he pulled a similar trick when asked what his next opponent, Bernard Tomic, needed to do against him in Round Three. “Play very bad, please. That’s what I can say to him.”
That’s a sentiment that Federer might have extended to his own second round opponent, Gilles Simon, because for Federer, this match was always going to pose him questions. Indeed it was the last question he got asked as he walked onto court: What could he do to beat the man who had a 2-0 record over him?
The Frenchman has had more than his share of problems in the last year, falling from inside the top 10 to outside the top 50 with to knee problems. Now he is back.
He took the Sydney title only last week and climbed, tellingly, to just outside the seedings, at 34. Hence Federer’s problem.
Initially, it seemed as though he had found the right answer as he efficiently swept through the first two sets, 6-2, 6-3.
But Simon is a notoriously good chaser, both from behind in a match and after balls on the court. For such a slightly built man, he has explosive speed, and in the third set, he started to pick up both Federer’s ground strokes and his serve.
He zipped them back deep to the Federer backhand, then to the forehand, and then wide to the backhand again: simple tactics, perfectly executed. In a dramatic turnaround, Simon broke Federer in his two opening service games and, though broken back, took the set 6-4.
In the fourth set, both men’s serving became more consistent, but Simon maintained long, fast rallies, breaking down the Federer attack, feeding off his pace and finally breaking him to level the match with a 6-4 set.
What had started as a challenge was becoming a headline story.
At 2-2 in the fifth, it could still have gone either way. It was then that Federer, perhaps reminding himself of Paul Annacone’s lessons of recent months, adjusted his tactics to try a more varied attack against Simon.
He found more acute diagonal volleys, a sequence of soft forehand drop shots and a few quick cross-court backhands. The combination brought a searing conclusion to the sixth game, a 4-2 lead, and two mighty roars from the usually quiet Swiss. He served out the set and the match, 6-3.
By now it was 1:10 a.m., yet still Federer faced the cheeky on-court questioning of Jim Courier. Despite five sets and three-and-a-quarter hours of tennis, Federer was more than up to the task. Asked how he was feeling before the fifth set: "I’m loving every moment of it, having lost the last two sets." Ask a stupid question, as they say...
But Federer must have been grateful that he got asked some easier questions in his third round match against long-time friend Xavier Malisse.
With Nadal, Andy Murray and now Novak Djokovic enjoying a retirement from an opponent apiece, Federer may feel he’s owed a break, too—especially after fending off Simon and Courier in one night!