7-6, 6-7, 7-6. Without going too far into the details of Roger Federer's latest victory in his opening match against Feliciano Lopez, it would be suggested that scorelines like that just tend to stick out in the print.
Of course, it was far more dramatic even than that, with Federer edging past Lopez in the first set tiebreak 15-13, only to be dominated in the second, and then have to save a match point before winning the final breaker 9-7. It was, truly, a tale of tiebreaks.
What does one make of a match like that, filled with things lacking in precedent, at least in recent memory? There were, of course, more things that did have precedent, so lets start with them first.
There was the uncertain and erratic play, with which we have become accustomed to seeing in Federer. It was partly the speediness of playing at altitude, against a big-serving Spaniard (who himself was in no small way buoyed up by the fact of a home crowd), having come off a lay-off (if it can be put thus) of nearly two weeks from competitive tennis. Perhaps, too, there was the intangible element that the Magic Box had just witnessed in the match before a classic beatdown by his arch(ex?)-rival, Rafael Nadal, over Marcos Baghdatis, 6-1, 6-3.
At any rate, Federer seemed to exhibit the sort of play that saw him lose to Jurgen Melzer at Monte Carlo, and indeed, that marks him out as much less a player than he used to be. There were errors and inconsistent play here and there, and, as is becoming something of a pattern, the inability to convert momentum into a winning formula, as nearly happened in the third set tiebreaker at 5-5, having recovered from a 2-5 deficit.
Of course, this untidiness is nothing new. We have become used to an older, more wary, and restrained, Federer, playing sometimes too much out of himself rather than in. How then does a win like this merit anymore an article than a routine footnote of a pedestrian 6-3 6-3 first round win anywhere else?
For one thing, this was the first time Federer had won a match being match point down in five years. The last time he successfully did so, of course, was at Halle in 2006, when he had a similarly tight match in three tiebreakers with Olivier Rochus. There are few precedents in his career—perhaps a victory in the thirteenth hour against Tomas Berdych last year at Montreal, from down 2-5 in the final set, might provide the most recent archetype for the new Federer escape artist.
There isn't anything terribly novel about Federer wins like this, however, although it is a universal human fact that winning a match like this imbues the victor with a certain untouchability—the all-powerful knowledge that he does indeed live to fight another day.
For Federer, winning matches like this, earning this feeling, have in the past signalled resurgence. Look back at 2008, when a horrendous second round match against Ruben Ramirez-Hidalgo looked to mar for eternity the career of the Swiss, as he looked down 1-5 in the third set. He wins that match, and supplies himself with enough emotional fodder to reach the final, and play two close sets in losing to Nadal. He would turn around his season that year, reaching the final in four of the next five tournaments played.
His win last year against Berdych, similarly, marked a mini-renaissance, which would see him reach the semifinals or better in his next 12 tournaments, with wins in five. Coming back from the brink for Federer, has not always been a bad thing.
At the end of the day, the tennis world would just be pleasantly happy to know that Federer does indeed live to fight another day. The day is over, the match is over, but he, crucially, has won. He next faces Xavier Malisse, who might play the role of springboard for Federer, to greater and better things. We ought to give the Swiss maestro the benefit of that doubt, at least.