Lopez reaches first final but faces old foe Federer
By John Roberts in Dubai
07 March 2004
Feliciano Lopez, a Spanish Davis Cup player, will tonight play in his first ATP Tour final. He faces Roger Federer, the world No 1 and Wimbledon and Australian Open champion, who is attempting a defence of the Dubai Open.
The 22-year-old Lopez is no stranger to Federer. They met in the fourth round at Wimbledon last summer, when the Swiss had a back spasm and seemed in danger of having to retire. He recovered and prevailed, 7-6 6-4 6-4, going on to play consummate tennis and defeat Mark Philippoussis in the final. Lopez prefers to remember taking the opening set and pushing Federer to a tie-break in the second set before losing, 4-6 7-6 6-4, in the quarter-finals of the Madrid Masters last October.
Ranked No 32 and climbing, Lopez is already the highest- placed left-hander on the Tour, although he was not at his most impressive in defeating Mikhail Youzhny, of Russia, 6-4 4-6 6-4 in the first of yesterday's semi-finals, played in a temperature of 34C and 75 per cent humidity. Federer, the only seed left in the tournament, also had a testing time in more comfortable evening conditions before defeating Jarkko Nieminen, of Finland, another left-hander, 7-6 6-2.
Although Federer broke for 3-2 in the opening set as the 34th-ranked Nieminen was struggling for rhythm on his serve, the Finn startled the crowd by immediately breaking back to love. Federer twice served to stay in the set, at 4-5 and 5-6, and had to save three set-points in the tie-break, in which Nieminen recovered from 3-0 down.
Federer converted his first set-point with a breathtaking backhand cross-court pass to secure the shoot-out 9-7, but Nieminen deserved better after taking the game to his opponent, and was unlucky with some calls that went Federer's way. A sense that Nieminen's opportunity had passed heightened after he lost the first three games of the second set, and Federer once again became a class act.
Lopez's confidence wavered in his contest with Youzhny. A break in the third game was enough for him to take the opening set, but he became increasingly uncertain when the Russian started to serve with authority in the second set. Youzhny levelled the match with a break in the 10th game, Lopez driving long on the second set-point.
Although Lopez had three chances to break in the opening game of the final set, there was little evidence of his usual attacking game. He tried to outrally Youzhny from the baseline, giving his opponent the chance to approach the net and volley, which he did too often for Lopez's comfort.
It was not until the eighth game that Lopez recovered his nerve, with a backhand volley to hold serve and a triumphant shout of "Vamos!" That shot transformed Lopez from a player on the verge of ending his week indisappointment into a vibrant contender. He took the set's only break for 5-4, pressing Youzhny into hitting a forehand long, and served out the match after an hour and 57 minutes.
Born in Toledo, Lopez started to play tennis at the age of five. The family moved to Madrid, where he came under the wing of the Spanish Tennis Federation, who awarded him a scholarship to train at their academy in Barcelona and hit with the élite Spanish players.
Last July, Lopez won the Spanish National Championships, defeating the 17-year-old Rafael Nadal, a fellow left-hander, in the final.
Asked what he needed to improve in his game to threaten Federer, Lopez said: "I don't have time to improve anything. I'll just have to go with what I have this week and do my best."