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Federer Douses the Flames of Doubt — and Nishikori

Matt Zemek

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When human beings are stressed at their office jobs or in administrative positions, they might refer to a hectic day as nothing but “putting out fires.” Roger Federer knows the feeling.

Federer has lived a very tricky existence in 2018. Near the end of his career, he wants to preserve himself for more tennis seasons, but the need to add years to his career makes the individual path through those years more challenging.

Taking a long break in the spring, then coming back in June, then taking four weeks off between Wimbledon and Cincinnati, then taking another break (interrupted by Laver Cup) between the U.S. Open and Shanghai have placed Federer in between two worlds. One is governed by the need for rest, the other by the need for match play. Those twin needs have constantly butted heads this year, making it hard for Federer to find the right rhythm and balance on the court.

In the early stages of his 2018 Shanghai tournament, Federer lived the precarious life of the rusty player who had to face opponents who sharpened their games in previous weeks in Tokyo (Daniil Medvedev) or Beijing and St. Petersburg (Roberto Bautista Agut). He got through those matches, but was blitzed at times. The sets he lost were primarily the result of his opponents playing well, but Federer’s forehand was not especially crisp. He won less by dominating and more by biding his time and staying on court long enough to collect a bit of fortune late in a third set. (We talked about one such episode earlier this week at Tennis With An Accent.)

People wondered, “Is Federer going to play better?” Is Federer going to lift his level of play in 2018 closer to the standard he set in the first months of 2017? Can the old man still access a higher gear when needed?

Enter Friday’s nighttime quarterfinal against Kei Nishikori.

The critics and skeptics of Nishikori would not be incorrect to point out that this was a very familiar Nishikori match: brilliant in sequences which lasted more than just one or two games, focused and lucid from the back of the court, generally strong enough to beat nearly everyone in the sport… but not good enough to beat the Big 3. Nishikori’s serve simply denies him the added margins and resources needed to complement his elite return game. Yes, Nishikori erased break leads by Federer in both sets on Friday, but if his serve could find a place of enhanced reliability, those mid-set breaks by Nishikori would have given him break leads, as opposed to merely regaining scoreboard parity. Federer showed Nishikori how it is done in the tiebreaker, unsheathing his best serve in the right moments to win a straight-set quarterfinal and face Borna Coric in a Saturday night semifinal.

(Side note: Federer also helped Kevin Anderson, a quarterfinal loser to Novak Djokovic, solidify his place in the ATP Race to London for November’s ATP Finals. Nishikori had been chasing Anderson for one of the final spots in the field. This win forces Nishikori to have to post a strong result in Bercy if he is to make the top eight. One key question: Will Juan Martin del Potro be healthy enough to keep his spot? Nishikori might become the first alternate in London. Keep an eye on that development.)

The win is not a mammoth win for Federer. Let’s not make it something more than it actually is. However, this victory does achieve one very simple goal: Federer won a high-quality match against an in-form player. He hasn’t had that many such victories since Stuttgart, when he beat Nick Kyrgios in a thriller and Milos Raonic in a well-played final on grass. He did turn back Stan Wawrinka in the Cincinnati quarterfinals. Against David Goffin, he wasn’t allowed to complete a match because Goffin retired, so that match is hard to evaluate in full. He didn’t go deep enough at the U.S. Open to test his game against a top ATP player. Medvedev was an in-form player, but that match veered all over the place in terms of quality.

This win against Nishikori solidifies Federer’s autumnal season. It gives him an important mental building block for 2019 as much as anything else.

Federer’s next match is against Borna Coric, who beat Matt Ebden in Friday’s other late-session Shanghai quarterfinal. Coric has made two Masters 1000 semifinals this year, both on hardcourts. The last time he made a Masters semi? It came against Federer in Indian Wells. Coric had a break lead in the third set but couldn’t hold it. Now the Croatian gets a second chance against the Swiss in a similar situation.

Should Federer lose to Coric, the result won’t be pleasant for the 37-year-old, but even if he does bow out in the semifinals, this result against Nishikori ensures that he won’t walk away from Shanghai empty-handed.

Can Federer still summon a high level of tennis, especially in pressure-packed moments? Some in the tennis community were beginning to wonder if he could still find a higher gear.

Federer put out that little fire of worry on a cool Friday night in China.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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