Roger Federer followed Rafa Nadal out of Rome at the hands of Radek “the worm” Stepanek..
Yes, that was Radek Stepanek pumping his fist and waving a towel and doing the worm after taking Roger Federer out of Rome in straight sets, 7-6(4), 7-6(7). What is going on here? First Rafael Nadal leaves town and now, two days later, Roger is out of the quarterfinals. Did Roger take his foot off the break the slightest bit after Rafa no longer loomed ahead in the draw? Was he just that a bit discouraged because he lost an opportunity to meet Rafa on clay?
And now what do we think? Is Roger still struggling physically? Here’s what I think. Roger is okay physically. He’s back from his mono but that means he’s back to the person who lost consecutive matches to Guillermo Canas and David Nalbandian. It’s also the player who doesn’t raise his game as often as he used to and doesn’t play the big points quite as well as he did.
At least this year he made it to one more round in Rome that he did last year when he went out to Filippo Volandri in the third round. Look, he could win the French Open and I wouldn’t be surprised, I’m just saying that we’re in for a bumpy ride with Roger from now on.
When Roger gets to a tiebreaker, for instance, we expect him to step it up or, at least, the take charge on the big points. Sure enough, he did get up a mini-break in the first set tiebreaker but he gave it back on a net cord error and then Stepanek was the one who took control. Serving at 4-4, Roger had control of the point then Stepanek hit a ball down the line that Roger had to scramble for. Roger followed that up with a dipping passing shot but Stepanek dug the ball out and dumped it just over the net to win the point. He followed that up with a service winner and an ace to take the first set.
At the beginning of the second set, Roger lost his serve after shanking two backhands, a theme of the day. After the match, someone asked him why he shanked so many backhands and this was his response:
You’ve seen me so many times. It happens all the time. Something I’ve been trying to get rid of for ten years. Still not today.
Well maybe, but Stepanek had something to do with it.
Stepanek rushed the net on his serve and, sometimes, his return. He attacked Roger’s backhand and he mixed things up so well that Roger didn’t know what was coming. At one point in the second set, Stepanek wound up as if to hit yet another shot to Roger’s backhand. Instead, he hit a drop shot in the opposite direction and Roger couldn’t recover quick enough to get there.
He also took the net away from Roger by getting there first and hit a lot of backhands down the line to Federer’s forehand. The commentators made an interesting point about list last thing. Roger is more comfortable hitting his forehand while running around his backhand than he is running towards the ball. If you’re running around your backhand, you have to twist your body away from the ball to get in position so you’re already into your backswing motion. If you’re running towards the ball, you have to wind up your backswing after you get to the ball and that means you have to get there earlier.
In other words, Stepanek did the right thing at the right time. Roger’s rhythm was off and Stepanek made sure he never found it.
Still, Roger had his chances and didn’t take them. He got back on serve in the second set and even though he lost his serve a second time on another mishit backhand, he was able to break back and found himself up 5-2 in the second set tiebreaker. It looked for all the world like he’d figured out Stepanek’s game and was now ready to finish out the set and match then move on to a semifinal showdown with Novak Djokovic.
One more backhand error, though, and he gave up the minibreak. At 7-7, Stepanek hit a return then immediately moved forward and Federer put a passing shot into the net. Stepanek then hit a service winner and his victory celebration began.
Against all odds, it looks like Djokovic is the member of the big three who might end up picking up the most points in the clay court season. If he wins this event, which is a pretty good bet at this point, he’ll be closer to Nadal than Nadal is to Federer.
Djokovic reminds me of a race car driver lagging behind the leaders who keeps his car pointing straight and true as the cars in front of him bump into each other and spin out. He might just cruise across the finish line first while the leaders are strewn all over the infield.