MADRID — If Roger Federer needed a tough test on clay after staying away from the surface for the past three years, he certainly got one on Thursday at the Madrid Open.
Federer survived a grueling encounter in which he survived two match points against him on his way to a 6-0, 4-6, 7-6 (3) win over Gaël Monfils.
“It wasn’t a classic match,” Federer said at a postmatch news conference. “There were ups and downs, and that is perhaps a bit normal when you get back on clay.”
He added: “It’s tough to come out and just play fantastic tennis. I don’t have that much time, so I have to accept errors that I wouldn’t do normally and just move on.”
After his win, the 1,200th of his career, Federer said that he could not recall losing a match in which he had won the opening set by 6-0. In fact, nothing in that first set could have served as a warning of what was to come. Federer took charge from the opening point, while Monfils kept hitting wayward shots. It was such a one-sided affair that Federer wrapped up the set in only 17 minutes.
At that stage, the capacity crowd might have thought Federer was heading for an even quicker victory than in the previous round, in which he defeated another French player, Richard Gasquet, in only 52 minutes. A crestfallen Monfils made his way back to his chair amid some booing from the fans.
But Monfils started the second set as if he had woken up from a bad dream. After finally winning his first game, he let out a huge shout of “Allez,” or “Go,” and quickly consolidated his early break. Now it was Federer who seemed unable to hold a rally. He was also regularly let down by his normally lethal forehand, and the set closed when Federer sent yet another forehand sailing beyond the baseline.
By then, Federer was losing his cool. After dropping yet another game, he hit a ball out of the stadium in frustration. It was an uncharacteristic gesture that earned him a warning from the umpire for ball abuse. At the next changeover, after failing to convert a break point, Federer appeared to throw his water bottle. He also briefly argued with the umpire about the shadow cast onto the court by the roof of the stadium.
Trailing by 1-4 in the final set, Federer got a confidence boost when he managed to hold easily, on the back of some great serving. He then clawed his way back to 4-4 with a beautifully chipped backhand that flew past Monfils as he was rushing the net.
After the two-hour match, Federer acknowledged that he had been “lucky” to survive the final set and got some help from Monfils, who mis-hit some of his shots and double-faulted repeatedly just as victory appeared to be within his reach.
Federer also took a serious gamble on one of the match points he saved while serving at 5-6. He charged the net off a second serve, mis-hitting his initial volley but doing enough to put Monfils under pressure. Federer won the point a few shots later with an overhead.
“I framed the first volley a little bit, which ended up being perfect,” Federer said afterward, flashing a big grin.
Asked what his strategy had been on match point, Federer said he had switched on “the panic mode,” aware that it was better for him to volley than to try to rally from the baseline, where he was no longer feeling comfortable.
“There were no more really any tactics,” he said.
Federer faces another tough test in the quarterfinals on Friday against Dominic Thiem, who last month won the Barcelona Open and on Thursday dispatched Fabio Fognini, the recent winner in Monte Carlo, 6-4, 7-5.
“I don’t have that much clay court tennis in me, but it doesn’t make me less dangerous,” Federer said.
The Federer-Thiem match is among a set of star-studded quarterfinals. There will be two battles between Grand Slam champions, with No. 1 Novak Djokovic facing Marin Cilic and No. 2 Rafael Nadal playing Stan Wawrinka. Fourth-ranked Alexander Zverev meets No. 9 Stefanos Tsitsipas in a matchup of top young players.
In the women’s draw, Belinda Bencic ousted top-ranked Naomi Osaka, 3-6, 6-2, 7-5. Bencic, who has beaten Osaka twice this season, will play No. 2 Simona Halep in the semifinals. Halep can reclaim the No. 1 ranking if she wins the tournament.
Sloane Stephens reached the Madrid semifinals for the first time by beating Petra Martic, 6-4, 6-3. She will play Kiki Bertens.
Source : NYtimes