Novak Djokovic went through to the second round here for the loss of only three games to the Brazilian João Souza on day one.
Roger Federer, who beat the world No1 handily in Cincinnati at the start of last week, did not quite match him on day two against Leonardo Mayer but there was little to fault in his 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 win against the lanky Argentinian, who was both good enough and profligate enough to blow five match points against him in Shanghai last year.
That was on the outer edges of the game; this was nearer the fulcrum, the sign-off major of the season, with the Swiss, recently elevated back to No2 in the world, a genuine contender for the championship and his 18th major title. There is a way to go, of course, but Federer’s fine form has no discernible end point after his excellent run at Wimbledon, where he served like a god to humble Andy Murray in the semi-finals before wilting a little against Djokovic in the final.
Since then he has rested sensibly before returning to the smoke of the battlefield looking fit, fresh and dangerous.
He turned 34 three weeks ago and is moving around the court with coltish energy. Again Federer felt confident enough to unfurl his new pet shot, the charge, for which Mayer had no more effective response than did Murray, Djokovic or Kevin Anderson in Cincinnati in the warm-up tournament.
Selectively crowding the net on his opponent’s second serve, Federer bamboozled Mayer, who is no mug with ball in hand. The charge has become more than an oddity – even if Rafael Nadal, for one, is amazed Federer is using it in a major championship after the headline-grabbing experiment in Mason, Ohio.
Federer smiles when it is suggested the shot is no more than a circus trick, with no place in a serious competitive arena. “I’m happy I was able to use it today,” he said courtside. “I hope to be able to keep it up. When you miss, it looks ridiculous. But my coach says keep going for it. Maybe some times I’ve got to drop it.”
The game was up for Mayer in an hour and 17 minutes – six minutes longer than Djokovic’s opening match and equal with Mikhail Kukushkin’s third-set retirement win over Lu Yen-hsun.
“I think I got off to a good start today,” Federer said in measured understatement. “He was a bit shaky in the beginning. When I got a break in the second, his level dropped. My serve got better and better.”
As for the revamped Arthur Ashe stadium where he has performed many of his glorious deeds, Federer observed: “This used to be the windy place. But here there is no wind. It is more consistent. Other than that, the roof is nice. It keeps the atmosphere in, although this has always been one of the best places to play tennis.”
Although casual fans came to see a ritual exhibition, Federer had good reason to remember Mayer and his big groundstrokes. In the only match they had played, Mayer held five match points before the Swiss (who struck 57 unforced errors) beat him 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (9-7) in the first round of the Shanghai Masters last year.
“There were different conditions in Shanghai,” Federer pointed out. “It is much livelier here. He’s a good player when he has more time, but maybe today I rushed him a bit much.”
But, apparently, he has not been following his opponent’s career that closely since. “I didn’t know he was unseeded,” he said beforehand. “It was a total shock to see that I was going to play him, because he’s been seeded for some time now at majors. That’s why I think he’s a really tough draw. Plus, the Shanghai match, was one of the luckiest matches I’ve ever won in my career, to be quite honest.”
How baseless his fears were, and how little Federer ever has to rely on the struggler’s friend, luck. After 17 minutes, he had hit four aces and led 5-0. The previous evening, against the hobbling Russian Vitalia Diatchenko, Serena Williams had hit five aces and led 5-0 five minutes faster.
The Swiss was in no mood for charity. From there to the end, it was a procession. Federer struck 12 aces and won 84% of his first serves – not that far behind the 92% of Djokovic, and the 93% of Williams.
Often it seems as if these are giants stepping on ants, although the jungle ahead has a few lively beasts waiting for all of them.
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