Fed overcomes bizarre break of serve

Three multiple Grand Slam champions and former world No. 1’s offered little master classes in just why they can dominate the rank and file, even if time seems to be slipping by.

Serena Williams and Andy Roddick may never climb back to the pinnacle; Roger Federer could, but he is "only" No. 3 in the world and has been written off more times than William Tell missed the apple. But all three won early round matches Saturday in the Sony Ericsson Open without dropping a set.

Federer proved he was human by blowing a 5-2 second-set lead against young American hope Ryan Harrison before winning 6-2, 7-6 (3), but Serena swept past Italy’s Roberta Vinci 6-2, 6-1 and Roddick blasted Luxembourg’s Gilles Muller 6-3, 6-2.

But a war chest of Grand Slam titles doesn’t always guarantee success — as Kim Clijsters discovered. The triple US Open champ proved the exception to the day’s rule by going down to fellow Belgian Yanina Wickmayer 6-4, 7-6 (5), after Wickmayer, who was a US Open semifinalist in 2009, had wasted three consecutive match points, nervously double-faulting away the third of them.

Part of the deal about being the kind of champion we had on view here on another beautiful South Florida afternoon of sunshine and gentle breezes is the ability to handle the unexpected, even the downright bizarre, and not let it throw you off course. Federer, Mr. Swiss Cool, offered a little demonstration.

Not unexpectedly, given his recent run of form — only two losses in his past 41 matches — Federer had been dominating Harrison. The American discovered that Roger was playing with far greater authority and confidence than in their only previous meeting at Indian Wells last year. But with the score 6-2, 5-3 and Federer seemingly on the brink of victory, the Swiss maestro smeared his canvas with an appalling miss off a bounced smash. He could have put it anywhere, but somehow contrived to hit the ball miles out of court. That made it 15-30 on his serve. Obviously unnerved, Federer lost the next point unluckily and then must have wondered what evil god had just descended on his side of the court.

Federer hit a forehand that landed right on Harrison’s baseline. As Harrison struck his return, someone in the crowd sitting near the line judge called "Out!" Instinctively, Federer halted his swing and ended up playing a nothing shot. The rule says the player stopping play for whatever reason loses the point. So, suddenly, Federer had lost his serve after facing break point for the first time in the match.

"I felt really bad," Harrison said afterward. "There’s nothing really you can say. Obviously I want to win every point the right way and not because something happened. Unfortunately, somebody interrupted play. I think it’s almost an unwritten law amongst the players where you go with the chair’s decision. If I give him something then and something happens later in the match and he doesn’t give it back to me — you know, you just don’t play that game."

Federer was bewildered.

"I didn’t play the shot, so it threw me completely off," he said. "It’s the first time it’s ever happened in my career. I don’t even know what to think about it. I should play the shot, I suppose. It’s my mistake at the end of the day. But it came from the direction of the linesman, and it was loud enough for me to hear it clearly."

Federer admitted he was more upset at missing that bounced smash and a net cord that went Harrison’s way on the 15-30 point.

"It was a tough 10 minutes for me in that stretch," he said. "It was tricky."

But Federer’s got over it — fast. Despite the crowd getting behind Harrison, Federer’s experience allowed him to grab the mini-break for 4-2 in the tiebreaker with a lofted forehand that turned into a perfect lob. He then unleashed two consecutive forehand winners down the line that were so pinpoint in their accuracy as to be almost laughable. That’s what champions do.

Serena had started the day’s program at 11 a.m., which she insists is not her favorite hour.

"I actually hate morning matches, but I always do my best at 11 a.m. matches or 10 a.m. matches," she said, adding with Serena-like logic, "So maybe I should like them."

What she didn’t like was having to miss Venus’ stunning victory over Petra Kvitova the evening before.

"I was playing so early I needed to kind of not be there," she said. "I have this app, which is kind of ATP/WTA live score, so I was watching the live scores. So it was really intense when she lost the first set. Then she raced through the third, so I was really excited."

Nothing much to get excited about as far as Serena’s match was concerned. She was simply far too good for Vinci.

Roddick was well satisfied with his performance against Muller, whom he last had played — and beaten — in Memphis in 2008.

"I’m moving a lot better," he said. "I ran after a ball — late in the first set, you know — just sprinted across court and didn’t think about it. Just went. There were a lot of positives. The last three or four days is probably the best lead up into an event where I didn’t feel I was fighting it."

Roddick will need to be moving well next time out. He plays Federer, against whom he has just two wins in 23 matches — though one victory came at Key Biscayne in 2008.

"We’ve played a ton," said Roddick, who came so close to beating Federer in one of the best Wimbledon finals of recent years in 2009. "There’s no secrets. I think we played here twice. I won one 6-4 in the third and he won one 6-4 in the third. It’s always fun. Yeah, it’s always fun."