Roger Federer fires back by subduing Radek Stepanek
To the strains of Vangelis’s emotive theme to Chariots of Fire, Roger Federer, whose wheels seem to be back on and rolling in a forward direction, was pictured with not one, but two trophies in the cauldron of the Foro Italico at the Rome Masters yesterday. What the Swiss would not give to lift the one that really matters on Sunday.
A lot of people may be deserting Federer. Articles suggesting he is all at sea are de rigueur, former champions have indicated that his game has more holes than a colander and the way it is going one expects to see Denise Robertson sitting beside him on the This Morning sofa, patting him on the knee and offering some homely Wearside thoughts on where he goes from here. But two important sections of the population have not yet given up on him just yet — his fellow players and his public.
The cut-glass prizes brandished yesterday were the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award, as voted by his fellow professional players, and the ATPWorldTour.com Fans’ Favourite honour. He has won both a record number of times — six for sportsmanship and seven from the fans. For all of Rafael Nadal’s remarkable recent feats, the world No 1 has not quite nudged Federer from his pedestal of universal popularity.
As nice as those awards are, they are not recompense for holding something gained through blood, sweat, toil and tears on the court (and there have been too many tears lately). Federer is two parts of the way to becoming the champion in the Italian capital for the first time and a conclusive 6-4, 6-1 dismissal of Radek Stepanek, the Czech who defeated him on the same piece of baked earth a year ago, was a satisfying means of reaching the quarter-finals.
Stepanek is a nuisance — all arms, legs, pirouettes and geeky gestures. One can imagine that many players have wanted to pin him to the locker-room wall for he is as aggravating as Ilie Nastase once was, but without the “nasty” streak. Federer knew that he had to prepare for the unlikely, not least those absurd net rushes behind snail’s-paced second serves. He coped admirably with all that Stepanek threw at him and dished out some pretty superlative shots of his own.
And so to the endless critiques of his form. He has won three quarters of his matches in the first four months of the year and reached the semi-finals or better in four of five tournaments, which would equate to “not too bad”. He said: “I have read these funny things when I’ve lost, that they know why I lost, which is sometimes completely wrong. So I started not to get carried away with it. Too many friends are telling me: ‘It’s going to be OK Roger, don’t worry.’ I’m like: ‘What’s the problem?’ There’s no problem. Even my friends start to believe it, so this is when I really know I shouldn’t peek at the papers.
“I guess it’s something that I have to get used to — a bit more press that’s just not always in my favour. For the last five, six years I’ve been playing so well and I’ve been so dominant there was really little to write about in a negative way.
“The important thing as a player is you know what’s going on. I’m very confident I know what’s wrong and I know what’s right. It’s important that I work hard and get back to my best play. I know I’m very close to it.”
Today comes a test he could not have been expecting. Mischa Zverev, a qualifier from Germany, defeated Gilles Simon, the No 8 seed, 6-4, 6-1, a performance that suggested that France is an awfully long way from finding a prospective men’s champion for Roland Garros.