Federer's clay-court play second to one
Rafael Nadal has been so dominant on the surface the past few years that we tend to forget just how good Roger Federer is on red clay.
In his first outing at the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters, Federer offered a quick reminder of his prowess on this most demanding of surfaces by sweeping Philipp Kohlschreiber off court 6-2, 6-1 on Tuesday. And "quick" was the operative word. It took him precisely 50 minutes.
It was a devastating performance that frequently brought gasps from the Centre Court crowd here at the Monte Carlo Country Club, where players are conscious that the beauty of their play is unlikely to match that of the spectacular surroundings. Federer had no problems with that Tuesday.
He glided around the court, hitting the ball with a smooth, majestic authority that allowed him to dominate his opponent from the start.
"I found I could finish the point almost whenever I wanted to," said Federer, who never allowed Kohlschreiber to settle as he came in behind deep approach shots to kill the ball with precise volleys. "I was quite surprised because I know how good Philipp is and how heavy his ball actually is."
Andy Murray found out about Kohlschreiber here 12 months ago when the Scot was destroyed by exactly the same score as Kohlschreiber lost to Federer on Tuesday. The 32nd-ranked German searched in vain for a way into the match as Federer continued to offer a classic demonstration of aggressive clay-court tennis.
That the Swiss can play like this on what the French call "terre battue" (literally "beaten earth") should come as no surprise. Federer's record has established him as one of the great clay-court players of the Open era. Nadal may have a huge winning margin over him on this surface, but Federer has been the second best clay-courter in the world by some distance.
His record speaks for itself. He has won the French Open once and has been a losing finalist three times. He won Hamburg — where the clay is the heaviest and slowest in Europe — four times before the German Open was demoted from Masters Series status. He has won Madrid once and has been a finalist once in the two years that the Spanish event has been played on clay and has also won lower-ranked clay events at Gstaad and Estoril. Here in Monte Carlo, he has been a finalist three times. He also has been a finalist in Rome twice.
How Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Boris Becker must envy that record. Those great champions never won a European clay-court singles title.
Gilles Simon became the fourth Frenchman to reach the second round when he defeated the Brazilian left-hander Thomaz Bellucci 6-3, 6-2.
However, playing a round ahead, fellow Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was ousted. Tsonga could not handle the big serving and delicate drop shots offered up by Ivan Ljubicic and went down 7-6, 6-4 despite leading 3-1 in the second set. Ljubicic, who won the Masters Series title in Indian Wells last year, lives and trains in Monaco, but the Croat has rarely played as well on his home court as he did Tuesday.
The two best young players on the tour, 22-year-old Ernests Gulbis of Latvia and 20-year-old Milos Raonic of Canada staged a fascinating match on Centre Court later in the day, which confirmed a suspicion that has been growing over the past few months: Gulbis has loads of talent, but Raonic has just as much and augments it with a far better temperament.
Raonic, who was ranked 409th this time last year and is now at 34 and rising, beat Gulbis 6-4, 7-5 and looked the better player throughout. Only when faced with three match points at 5-4 on the Roanic serve did Gulbis put a good string of points together. He came up with a daring drop shot and a great forehand winner to win five in a row and break back.
It was a temporary reprieve. Raonic, changing the pace on his ground strokes, forced Gulbis into more errors, broke again and served it out with an ace.
The Latvian had got all hot and bothered when the umpire insisted he had reached a Raonic drop shot on the second bounce midway through the first set and promptly dropped serve as his concentration vanished out over the Mediterranean.
Raonic, who has looked like a seasoned campaigner ever since reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open and winning San Jose, is making his first appearance in Monte Carlo — his first clay-court event, in fact, on the ATP Tour. He will be in the top 20 very soon.
Monday was Ladies Day at the Monte Carlo Country Club. To celebrate, tournament director Zeljko Franulovic put on a women's exhibition to augment the day's program. Reigning French Open champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy was an obvious choice because Italians always form a big percentage of the crowd here, but it was surprising that he could call on the services of world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki.
The young Dane had been holding up the winner's trophy at Charleston, SC, on Sunday afternoon. After weighing down a British Airways jet out of Heathrow with no less than eight huge tennis bags, the ever-smiling Caroline walked onto the Monte Carlo court 24 hours after leaving Charleston.
"I have a home in Monaco, so I was happy to do it," said Wozniacki, who will spend the rest of the week unpacking and trying to find a practice court.
It should get easier when the men move on to Barcelona.