Impressive clay start for Federer

April, 12, 2011
4/12/11
10:08
AM ET


Roger Federer has been around a long time.

When the Swiss faced Philipp Kohlschreiber at the Monte Carlo Masters on Tuesday, it marked his third decade of play at one of the tour's most glamorous spots. In 1999, Federer, who was the beneficiary of a wild card, lost to Vincent Spadea, the quirky, rap-loving, recently retired American.

Kohlschreiber, who held an advantage since he had already played a match in Monte Carlo this week, began well -- winning the first point. But from there it was smooth sailing for Federer. With impressive decision-making and point construction, the world No. 3 won 6-2, 6-1 in 50 minutes.

Federer seems tailor-made for Monte Carlo, elegant and suave, fitting in with the well-heeled locals on the stunning Cote d'Azur. Mind you, there isn't much pretention in the 16-time Grand Slam champion. Perhaps it's one of the reasons he, unlike many of his peers, doesn't own a residence in the tiny, tax-friendly principality.

No one could have forecast Federer's legacy 12 years ago. Now 29 and declining, which was only inevitable, Federer embarked on the current clay-court swing as clearly the third-best player in the world, chasing Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the six-time defending Monte Carlo champ.

A number of Federer's opening matches in Monte Carlo have been mixed bags. On his visit two years ago, he comfortably swept past Italian grinder Andreas Seppi. But he struggled against Seppi in 2007, was extended to three sets by a younger Djokovic a year earlier, and almost suffered an embarrassing defeat to clay-court journeyman Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo in 2008, when he rallied from 4-0 down in the third set to win a tiebreaker.

A change of surface often means a change of attire, and Federer donned white shorts and a collarless blue shirt, grey hugging his shoulders and the back of his neck. As ever, the headband was in place. He was ready to go in sunny, lovely, early-spring conditions.

Kohlschreiber punches above his weight in power, possesses a wonderful one-handed backhand and has no problem playing at the net.

He upset Djokovic at the French Open in 2009 when the Serb was the second-hottest player entering Roland Garros and took Fernando Verdasco (coming off fine performances in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome) to five sets at the French last season. Kohlschreiber memorably smacked 100 winners versus Roddick in Melbourne three years ago.

In other words, on paper, this wasn't supposed to be a cakewalk, even if the world No. 32 is prone to lapses of concentration and had lost all five matches he'd played against Federer (though none on clay).

But it was a one-sided masterpiece by the Swiss Maestro.

Federer spoke of the slow, hard surface this season in Indian Wells and Miami and how difficult it was to hit through the court. On clay, there's little confusion. Patience is pivotal -- and so is opening up the court.

Not keen on the drop shot a few years ago, Federer used it more often in the buildup to the 2009 French Open, when he thought Nadal would be waiting, again, in the final. He uncorked a beauty at the end of the second game on the forehand. Kohlschreiber got there, although he had no choice but to reply defensively, and Federer put away a forehand volley.

The serve indeed clicked. Federer's first-serve percentage rested above 70, and he lost four points behind it overall.

There was no between-the-legs effort from Federer a la U.S. Opens of past, yet a highlight-reel moment came near the end, when a lob had Kohlschreiber in trouble. Kohlschreiber stretched and tapped the ball barely over the net, but Federer raced up in time and smoothly scooped a forehand down the line.

Federer next plays the disappointing Marin Cilic on Thursday. Further ahead in Federer's half are Verdasco, David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro. As prolific as they are on clay, Federer is a combined 20-0 against the Spanish trio, including 8-0 on dirt.

If Federer reaches the final Sunday, his opening tournament of the clay-court swing will be a success. Judging by his opener, things appear promising.

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