When the world No. 1 walked onto the court at Rod Laver Arena last night for his Australian Open first round showdown with Argentine Diego Hartfield, it loomed as a danger match.
For starters, Federer was dreadfully underdone. Because of a stomach virus he missed his only lead-up tournament, meaning his last competitive tennis was in November against the retired Pete Sampras.
He was playing for the first time here on plexicushion, the new surface at Melbourne Park which has less bounce than the retired rebound ace.
Lastly, he was facing an opponent who had troubled him in their only encounter, a tight three-set affair at the 2006 French Open (admittedly the Swiss star’s poorest surface).
It all mattered naught.
Clad in an imposing black outfit with blue trim that made him resemble a tennis-playing Batman—if the Caped Crusader hadn’t embarked on a career as an industrialist, fighter of evil, and wearer of ill-fitting garb—Federer turned Hartfield into roadkill, repeatedly driving and reversing over his remains for good measure.
When the hapless Argentine finally won his first game to make it 3-1 in the second set the sympathetic centre court crowd roared its approval...and Hartfield—to his credit—hung his arms in the air to lap up the faux acclaim.
The ultimate indignity came four games later. Serving for a two sets to love lead, Federer sent an ace to Hartfield’s backhand wing and walked to the chairs to contemplate the third set. Hartfield, though, challenged the serve and the replay showed him right, with the ball missing by less than an inch.
A monster serve down the T that the Argentine could only watch. As the players went to switch ends Hartfield shook his head in bewilderment and Federer allowed himself a wry grin. A lesser man would have strutted, punched his chest, or hoisted his palms to the rafters.
Federer, who “toiled” for 74 minutes in winning 6-0, 6-3, 6-0, is such an exceptional shotmaker that he gets little credit for his athleticism.
Perhaps it’s his grace and anticipation and the fact he barely sweats or looks fatigued—but he is an outstandingly gifted athlete who very rarely lacks for speed on the court.
On the few times he is caught out, his incredible ability to hit half-volleys or balls below his knees—not just defensively but for outright winners—is unsurpassed.
The trend started with Andre Agassi, but Federer has taken it to a new level.
It means that no matter how deep an opponent’s shotmaking is, Federer is perpetually in a position to hit a ground stroke that won’t come back.
“I’m happy with my form,’’ Federer said after the straight-sets demolition. “I wish it was like this every night”.
The problem with that is it just about is like this every night.
His next opponent—victim?—is canny tour veteran Fabrice Santoro.
Although the Frenchman’s touch and double-fisted groundstrokes from both wings trouble most players, don’t expect Federer to be among that club.
The Swiss star’s only difficulty will be if he dons the batsuit in the blazing Australian sun.