- Joanne C. Gerstner, Contributor, espnW.com
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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- For about the first 50 minutes Saturday, Roger Federer was in utter control of his match against rising American Ryan Harrison at the Sony Ericsson Open.
Federer has been the hottest player on the ATP Tour since last year's U.S. Open, winning six of the past eight tournaments. He could do little wrong on Saturday, and Harrison struggled to find anything that worked. The pattern held through the majority of two sets before things got interesting in the final 20 minutes at the Crandon Park Tennis Center.
Federer relaxed a bit, Harrison started playing better and strange things started happening. As Federer said, his neat, sure-fire win became "messed up."
Federer ended up winning 6-2, 7-6 (3), but not without some unexpected stress.
Harrison, on his serve, sliced Federer's lead to 5-4. Federer was serving to win the match when things started to go crazy. He had an easy-looking overhead to put away in the open court, at 15-30, but fired it way long. The crowd gasped, and Federer looked disgusted with himself.
It was 15-40 when Federer, the world's No. 3 player, experienced something that's never happened in his career: A fan called a ball out, and he stopped playing. Federer quickly realized the call did not come from the linesperson, but rather, someone in the stands.
Federer looked confused at first, shook his head then walked slowly back to his chair as the match was then 5-all. According to the rules of tennis, such an issue cannot be reviewed by instant replay or by the chair umpire. But Federer stopped himself from hitting a backhand, and he lost the point.
"It completely threw me off," Federer said. "I didn't know what to think of it, because I was like, 'That's it? That's the break point? That's how it's going to happen? OK.' ... It's my mistake at the end of the day."
Harrison also felt badly about what happened, as he's been through the same thing in his career. He said he apologized to Federer after the match about the point.
Federer collected himself and defeated Harrison in the tiebreaker. It was a strange shading on what was otherwise a strong match from Federer.
Harrison, ranked No. 73, knew he had a stiff challenge coming because Federer has a 76-match win streak over players ranked outside of the top 20.
Federer is now 40-2 since last year's U.S. Open, and Harrison said he saw a clear change in his opponent's demeanor. Federer defeated Harrison at the 2011 BNP Paribas Open, 7-4 (4), 6-3, but had some moments of shakiness on the Indian Wells hard courts during their windy night match.
"From a game standpoint, you can tell he's hitting his shots with a complete confidence and conviction, as opposed to, there were some times last year whenever that he didn't look like he had the same authority on the shot," Harrison said. "Coming off as many matches he has this year, he's got like this authority about his game right now, where he's hitting his shots, knowing he's going to make them.
"It's going to make it difficult for anybody to beat him."
Federer, who is a two-time champion in Miami, agreed that he is feeling strong right now. He's serving well, moving freely, and when things are flowing he makes the game look easy. Even when Harrison was serving 130 mph into his body.
Federer will next play No. 34 Andy Roddick.
"I guess I am more confident now than I have been," Federer said. "I have been playing really nice as of late, so obviously I'm going to second-guess myself a little bit less this time around. When we played last year, it was the first time I had ever played against him. There was a lot on the line. There was a lot of hype around that match. "