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Steve's Weblog

An incurable tennis addict, Steve Flink has been following the game since 1965, the year he first went to Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships. Flink is a Senior Correspondent for Tennis Week Magazine, a publication he joined in 1992. From 1972-82, he put his photographic memory to use as a statistician for CBS, NBC and ABC. He has been a consultant and writer for the International Tennis Hall of Fame since 1994 and is a member of their Nominating Committee. Steve is the author of The Greatest Tennis Matches of the 20th Century. Flink's recall of match history is unsurpassed.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Federer Winning Streak Ends

Sooner or later, it had to happen.

Roger Federer had won seven tournaments in a row and 41 consecutive matches coming into his second round contest at the Pacific Life Open against Guillermo Canas at Indian Wells. He had not lost a match since Andy Murray upended him in Cincinnati last summer. Included in that remarkable streak were two Grand Slam tournament triumphs at the 2006 U.S. Open and the 2007 Australian Open. The closest he had come to defeat in that span was in the round robin at the year-end Tennis Masters Cup last November, when Andy Roddick reached match point three times before bowing in a first class skirmish indoors at Shanghai.

But this time Federer was unable to cope with an unerring and strategically sound Guillermo Canas at Indian Wells. Canas thoroughly deserved his 7-5, 6-2 victory over the world No. 1. In two sets, the 29-year-old from Argentina made only 9 unforced errors, 34 fewer than an out of sorts Federer. Moreover, Canas lost his serve only once while breaking Federer four times. It was an impressive performance in many ways.

To be sure, Federer was not in sparkling form. As the two men battled through the shadows in the late afternoon, the Swiss stylist was not timing the ball particularly well and he did not dictate the baseline exchanges with his customary authority. But Canas had an awful lot to do with the woes of Federer. His length off the ground was extraordinary. Time and again, he kept Federer pinned behind the baseline, and he was not afraid to challenge the top seed on the forehand side.

Canas kept rolling his topspin forehand deep and relatively high to Federer’s forehand, luring Roger into mistakes, preventing his adversary from taking command from the back of the court. I watched the entire match on the Tennis Channel and Canas deserves a lot of credit for keeping the pressure on Federer and not being afraid to win. At 4-5 in the opening set, Canas saved two set points in the critical tenth game. On the first one, Federer had forced an attacking Canas away from the net with a superb defensive lob off the forehand. But then Federer missed an attempted winner off a shoulder high ball, driving a forehand into the net.

On the second set point, Canas made a fine running forehand deep down the middle, catching Federer slightly on his heels. The world No. 1 then drove a forehand long. From that juncture, Canas collected nine of the last eleven games to knock Federer out of the tournament that he had won for the previous three years. Now the question is this: how significant is this setback for the game’s dominant player?

At first glance, the answer is difficult. He really was due for a defeat, having not suffered a loss since the middle of August last year. To go from summer until almost the following spring is a long time spent on the winning track. As long as Federer bounces back emphatically with a win in his next appearance at Miami, he will forget about the Canas match in a hurry.

If, however, it plays out differently and he loses again at the Miami Masters Series event, Federer would surely be jarred. He is seeking a third straight singles title on the hard courts at the Sony Ericsson Open, and will fully expect to get back on track with a victory there. So that makes for an intriguing set of circumstances. It is clearly not a must win situation for Federer, who has built such an immense supply of inner belief since the start of 2004. He would be irritated but not disconsolate if he lost in Miami. But undoubtedly he would much prefer to reestablish his winning ways at the tournament many consider the most important of any outside the Grand Slam circle.

In any event, perhaps the best of the clay court breed will be encouraged by the way Canas overcame the world No. 1 at Indian Wells. He played within himself, refused to go for too much, made Federer ill at ease by keeping his shots so deep and directing them high to both sides and preventing his foe from getting into his customary rhythm. That strategy of concentrating on depth, being willing to go after Federer’s forehand and forcing the Swiss into inordinately long rallies is the way to go for many others as well.

A year ago on the clay, Federer played three events at Monte Carlo, Rome, and Roland Garros. He did not win any of those tournaments but the fact remains that he lost to only one player: Rafael Nadal. And even if he was aggravated by that string of defeats against the game’s greatest clay court competitor, Federer could take pride in the fact that he beat everyone else on his least favorite surface. This year, even if he does prevail in Miami, Federer just might be more susceptible on the clay than he was a year ago. Canas stuck assiduously to a good game plan on a hard court and kept exposing Federer on a day when the world No. 1 was not at the top of his game. And he did not shy away from winning when the opportunity was there as so many players have against this singularly daunting player.

Maybe, just maybe, others will step up on the clay and take advantage of Federer when he is not playing irresistibly well.


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