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One week offers context on Federer-Albot and matches which change seasons

Matt Zemek

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Steve Mitchell -- USA TODAY Sports

If I had to bet money on Roland Garros seedings, I would still say that no, Roger Federer will not be a top-four seed. It is still more likely that Dominic Thiem will pass him. Thiem has points to gain in Monte Carlo and Rome. If he wins just one clay Masters title, Federer will have a very hard time passing him before Paris. Thiem will need to have a substandard clay season, and Federer will have to do something in Madrid and/or Rome, for Federer to get the No. 4 seed at the French Open, which would force Thiem to be subjected to the possibility of playing Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals.

Nevertheless, if Federer is able to win the Miami Open on Sunday (we gonna see, no?), he will at least make the No. 4 seed in Paris an open question. He would force Thiem to perform at a higher standard to make sure the Austrian gets that coveted seeding position. Purely in terms of seeding slots, that is the biggest question heading into Paris, since it is clear that Djokovic and Nadal will be in the top two in the opposite halves of the draw.

All of that aside, though, consider a larger point beyond French Open seedings: If Roger Federer had lost to Radu Albot a week ago at the Miami Open, not only would the No. 4 seed not be a debate right now; Federer’s 2019 season would be viewed very differently.

Federer’s 2019 record, entering Sunday’s Miami final, is 17-2. Had he lost to Albot: 12-3. Miami and Indian Wells are tournaments in which top ATP players play six matches, not the five they play at 56-player Masters 1000 events from Monte Carlo through Bercy. These are tournaments where elite players can rack up a lot of match victories against various opponents and establish a level of confidence which flows through the rest of the season.

This past week in Miami, Federer has beaten Filip Krajinovic, who is having a promising season; Daniil Medvedev, who made such a positive impression in January and February before declining in March; Kevin Anderson, back from his elbow injury; and Denis Shapovalov, who once again reached a Masters 1000 semifinal before turning 20. Those wins could all pay dividends later in 2019, but what is more immediately true is that Federer played an entirely different set of opponents relative to Indian Wells — no repeats, thanks to Krajinovic knocking out potential opponent Stan Wawrinka.

We have been able to see Federer in many more contexts, presenting problems to the rest of the ATP Tour in a tournament Novak Djokovic was not able to handle very successfully. Win or lose in the final against John Isner, Federer has reminded the tour of his enduring consistency and stability. A round-of-64 flameout — which occurred a year ago in Miami at Crandon Park against Thanasi Kokkinakis — would have noticeably redrawn the ways in which observers characterized Federer’s current place on tour.

Can we now appreciate, to a much greater degree, the value of his R-64 escape against Radu Albot? On a larger level, can we appreciate how these early-round survival acts reshape the whole fabric of a tennis season, and how they change the history of the sport?

In this not-yet-finished decade — the 2010s — what would you say is the most important and consequential men’s tennis match?

The 2012 Australian Open final? The 2014 Wimbledon final? The 2016 Roland Garros final? You could make very strong arguments for those and other matches.

My answer: The 2010 U.S. Open first-round match between Djokovic and Viktor Troicki.

Think about it: That match set in motion the larger course of events which has defined the subsequent 8.5 years of ATP competition.

If Djokovic — down 2 sets to 1 and down a break in the fourth set — had not come back, he would not have played Federer in the semifinals. He would not have saved two match points and won; Federer and Nadal MIGHT (I can’t guarantee it, because another player might have given Federer problems in the semifinals) have played in a U.S. Open final. Djokovic would not have played Nadal in the final and given Rafa a vigorous test. Nole would have left New York without the newfound belief that he could be a giant in men’s tennis.

Maybe the 2010 Davis Cup title still would have catapulted Djokovic into his majestic 2011 season of triumph… but it would have been harder had he not made that run at the U.S. Open, and the Troicki match was the precarious yet satisfying moment of perseverance when Djokovic reshaped his path at that tournament in New York. It showed him that he could still overcome so many obstacles, most of all the Fedal axis which seemed so utterly impenetrable at the time.

I offer the simple claim that Novak Djokovic began to become NOVAK DJOKOVIC against Troicki. If ever an early-round escape redefined tennis history, that is one of the foremost examples in my field of awareness.

Federer-Albot doesn’t own that level of magnitude — not even close — but it does fit and replicate the pattern of an early-round survival act reshaping how we perceive players. This shift in perception might not be enormous, but the difference (possessing slight to modest degrees) can still be conspicuous. It doesn’t have to be a canyon-sized gap to be a noticeable one.

Was Federer d. Albot an ordinary win, not something to celebrate or magnify? I totally understand why someone would find that match unremarkable. However, when you add the fact that Federer had LITERALLY never played a live match on that court in Hard Rock Stadium, and was getting used to the feel of the court and all the surroundings — with Albot having played a first-round match to provide more familiarity than Federer with the way Miami courts played — Federer’s ability to elude an early exit takes on more dimensions.

These are the matches on which seasons pivot. These are the hinge points which Alexander Zverev, Borna Coric, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and other prominent ATP players must be able to conquer on a regular basis at the most important tournaments in the coming decade.

You can be your own judge here, but from where I sit, spending time on Federer-Albot — and Djokovic-Troicki — is hardly a waste of my energy.

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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