First David Nalbandian and Lleyton Hewitt treated us to a five-set battle under the lights on Rod Laver, then Roger Federer and Gilles Simon had to follow suit. In the past both of their meetings had gone Simon’s way – but they hadn’t played since 2008, with Simon struggling with knee problems and plummeting in the rankings before starting to climb again late in 2010. Today looked like it was going to be a straight sets victory, with Federer fairly imperious in the first two sets and Simon’s record against him seemingly set to be relegated to the status of a fluke.
It also didn’t help that he was dressed like an eight year-old being taken on holiday to the Costa del Sol with an all-new wardrobe purchased for him to ‘grow into’.
I’ll confess to dozing through the next set and a half, and things looked a bit different when I woke up, because Gilles was playing the sort of tennis that got him to Masters series finals back in the day. I really don’t know any other player, apart from Andy Murray, who is so good at forcing the opposition to play his way, seducing them into long exchanges which end in an attempt to hit past him out of sheer frustration. For a while there he had Federer on a string, and it was beautiful to watch.
Of course, Federer didn’t help himself by sticking with his attempts to hit through Gilles long past the point it was clear it wasn’t working. The man is stubborn, after all, and he doesn’t like looking like he’s adapting to his opponent. There were moments at the beginning of the fifth when it seemed possible for a moment that it actually would go Gilles’ way. Federer was visibly anxious, and went 0-30 down on his serve. It could have changed the course of the match, but Gilles didn’t put the next ball back over the net and from there, Federer pulled himself together and remembered the key to playing against Simon; more angle, less pace and force the Frenchmen to generate winners from nothing. He got the break and that was the match, 63 in the fifth.
By the end, the weathervane that is Mats Wilander in the Eurosport commentary booth was making Federer the favourite for the tournament. I wouldn’t go that far – there’s that Spanish guy somewhere, what’s his name again? – but nor do I think this match means a lot in the context of Federer’s chances. He got sucked in and knocked around for two sets by a Gilles Simon on top form; it can happen. There aren’t too many other players in the draw who can get to him that way, and one of them – Andy Murray – will have to go through Nadal to get to him.
What I did find interesting was the level of visible emotion displayed by Federer – the depth of the jubilation when he got the break and the match in the fifth. Whether it’s the Annacone effect or not, it seems that both in London and Melbourne he’s seemed … keener, more intense, more up for it – even to the extent of being slightly ragged at times (by Federer’s standards). If he does lose in this tournament, it’s not going to be because he comes out listless or flat.
As for Gilles, I just hope he continues playing in this vein. It’s a pleasure to watch.
Next up for a night match on Rod Laver? Delpo and Marco Baghdatis. Can they make it three five-set thrillers in three nights?