It is that stage in the tournament, the bit where the favourites emerge from the pack and announce their intentions.
The first week is always entertaining for the fans – everyone is on show and there is plenty to see – and educational for the players. As they ease themselves up to full speed, they can make a few minor tweaks to their game, and they can run an experienced eye over the opposition. Who is looking sharp? Who is carrying an injury? Who is looking edgy?
But then there is Roger Federer. The man who stubbornly refused to class himself as a favourite a matter of days ago (he reckoned he was far too old at 36 to be thought of as a champion elect) may be talking that talk, but he is certainly not walking that walk. Yet again, he breezed through his evening gig at Rod Laver Arena, this time removing Richard Gasquet from his path 6-2 7-5 6-4 on Saturday night.
“I think I was able to stay a little bit more on the offensive than him,” Federer said with perfect understatement.
“Maybe I protected my own serve a little bit better than him. Richard played well – and me too. I’m happy to win tonight.”
As the rounds go by, so the opponents get better and harder to beat. But the Mighty Fed does not seem to care. He is the master of game management, conserving his energies for the key moments in the match. So it was that he let Gasquet do his thing – lovely backhand, trying to take the fight to Federer – while the defending champion looked after his serve and waited for his moment to pounce.
Federer has that happy knack of making tennis look so easy. There is no sweat or grind with the world No.2, and there are no fancy-pants tactics. He simply, cleanly and regularly puts the ball where his opponent cannot reach it. As game plans go, it is hardly complicated, but no one does it quite like Federer.
For most of the first set, the Swiss maestro looked at Gasquet’s one-handed backhand (a shot of style and beauty) and took it on. “Call that a one-handed backhand, Richard? Take a look at this!” If Gasquet thought the shot would be a real weapon, Federer disabused him of the notion, disarming it time and again.
When Gasquet upped the ante in the second set, playing considerably better and not conceding a break point for the best part of 45 minutes, Federer did not look flustered. He has won 19 Grand Slam titles in his time; taking on the world No.31, a man he has beaten 16 times in 18 meetings (Gasquet has not taken a set from the Swiss in seven years), Fed knew he did not need to worry. No, he knew he would get his chance eventually.
That moment came as the Frenchman went to serve for the set. And for all his hard work to challenge the champion in the previous 11 games, it mattered not one jot as Federer welted a couple of winners and got his reward for the pressure as Gasquet made the errors.
Come the third set, Gasquet’s spirit had been broken. He had done all he could and he was still two sets down. Now what? As he pondered the problem, Federer skipped to a 3-0 lead. Gasquet was dripping with sweat; Federer was not even out of breath (hence the old saying: Horses sweat, gentlemen perspire, but Roger merely glows). They had been on court for 90 minutes and Gasquet had not had so much as a sniff of a break point to work with.
That was about to change – even Federer is human – as the finishing line came into view. Out of nowhere, Gasquet managed to break serve. He was still 3-4 behind, mind you, but he had broken serve. But before anyone had time to put out the bunting and balloons, Federer broke back. Unfortunately for Gasquet, he was serving to stay in the match at the time.
Comparing the match statistics, there did not seem to be much in it. Gasquet had 27 winners to 16 errors; Federer had 42 winner to 30 errors. They are very respectable sets of figures, but actually on the match court, Federer was making mincemeat of his old rival.
After almost two hours, Federer was safely through to the last 16 there to face Marton Fucsovics, the world No.80 from Hungary. And still he says he isn’t the favourite for the title. It seems that not even Federer can get everything right.