Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Andreev's A + Game Is Not Enough To Tame Federer

He's got a .500 record over the course of his career (7-7 in Australia, 5-5 at the U.S. Open) in the hard court Slams, but man did 26-year-old Igor Andreev look like anything but an average player yesterday in his first round match with Roger Federer.

Andreev, who took Roger to 5 thrilling sets at the U.S. Open in 2008, began the match as if he had some unfinished business with the reigning king of tennis. He was clearly in the mood for usurping.

Many a great tennis player has been beaten by Federer before the first balls have been struck, this is the psychological reality of preparing to play a man who is pretty much untouchable in Grand-Slams, let alone in the first round of one. But it was obvious that the slumping Russian bear was ready to wake up from a 5-month hibernation that started in N.Y. with an upset loss at the hands of American journeyman Jesse Witten in the 2009 U.S. Open.

Federer, to his credit, seemed to sense the mood of his attacker from the onset. From the first few games of the match it was clear that we were in for some of that eye-popping, jaw-dropping tennis that makes us proud to be tennis fans. Even the commentators, Patrick McEnroe, Darren Cahill, and Cliff Drysdale, sounded like the hairs on the back of their neck were standing up.

"This one does not have the feel of a first-round match," quipped McEnroe, as things started to heat up.

When you're number one in the world like Federer, you have to be ready for this sort of thing - players like Andreev have nothing to lose and everything to gain from beating you. Why not come out and swing for the fences? Against Federer it is an all or nothing proposition - either you bring your A + game, show your teeth, and try to do some damage to the Federer empire, or you take your place in the dog and pony show and try to humor the crowd without getting hurt.

Andreev chose to show his teeth. And he was hitting wildly, with no fear for the consequences.

It seemed that no matter what shots Federer played he couldn't keep Andreev from hitting massive forehands into both corners of the court. Even when Federer hit his backhand slice deep and almost to the sidelines on Andreev's backhand side, there was Andreev, backpeddling into the doubles alley and teeing off on the forehand - an in-your-wildest dreams forehand that kept Federer on the defensive for much of the match.

With things level in the 3rd set, Federer found himself in serious trouble - he was playing catch up for much of the set and he had to fight off 3 set points in the final game (after serving for the set with a 5-3 lead) before finally pulling out a tiebreaker.

Andreev, mired in a slump, had lost 8 of his previous 9 matches - but today he played some of the best tennis of his life. It was beautiful to watch, and it gave the fans something more than the usual Federer first-round walk in the park.

But as is so often the case with Federer's usurpers, Andreev couldn't pull the trigger when he had the Swiss Maestro in his sights. By the time the 4th set began, Andreev knew that he had blown his best chances. He fell with a resounding thud, unable to capture a game, his best tennis now evaporated into the Australian summer air.

While it will look like just another loss on paper for Andreev - his 9th in 10 matches - he should try to learn from it. He played with a sense of belief and freedom that would have made him a threat against any of the top players in tennis. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that if Andreev could play like he did yesterday on Rod Laver on a consistent basis, he'd be back in the top-20 in no time.

Andreev has the game to beat anybody out there, but unlike Federer, he doesn't have the other intangibles that facilitate wins.

The little things are so big in tennis. Belief and desire can fuel a career. A big forehand cannot.

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