Former U.S. No. 1 Mardy Fish once said that whenever he and his fellow Americans went up a set on a European player in Miami, they knew there was a chance that the opponent would start thinking of home, and stop thinking quite as hard about winning. Miami marks the end of the two-tournament, four-week spring hard-court season in the States; by now, anyone who lives or trains outside of the U.S. has been on the road for nearly a month. By now, many of these players have had their fill of cheeseburgers and freedom fries—not to mention South Florida humidity.
Today, the two Swiss men left in the draw, Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka, were on opposite sides of tennis’ continental divide. Federer was the beneficiary of a helpfully feeble effort from France’s Richard Gasquet, who went out 6-1, 6-2 in just 49 minutes. When Gasquet hustled off court after the handshake, it looked like he might run all the way to the airport.
As for Wawrinka, he was the one who looked ready to make his getaway. Stan was grouchy at the start of his match against Alexandr Dolgopolov; even before it began, he was bugged by some noisy audience members. The muggy air, which lingered after a night of rain, didn’t seem to help. Sluggish, error-prone, and hitting from his heels, Wawrinka fell behind early to the livelier Ukrainian.
It looked like the second set might go the way of the first, except that Dolgopolov, never known for his closing ability, went off the rails; Wawrinka took advantage at 4-3 with a quick break and hold—as well as his first, and perhaps only, fist-pump of the day. But that was all Stan had in him. He was broken to start the third and finished his 6-4, 3-6, 6-1 loss in a hail of flat-footed unforced errors.
After his Miracle in Melbourne, I had thought Wawrinka was due for a slump until he got back on European clay. While Stan didn’t bottom out completely in the States, his March swing consisted of fourth-round losses to lower-ranked players in both Indian Wells (to No. 18 Kevin Anderson) and Miami (to No. 23 Dolgopolov). Wawrinka says that his expectations haven’t changed since his big win; it's just that he knows now hecan beat anyone.
That’s probably the right way to put it. Wawrinka will turn 29 in three days; while he has more confidence than ever, no high-level pro has ever transformed his game at that age. Wawrinka knows now that on the right day he can beat a player he’s isn’t supposed to beat; but that knowledge isn’t going to help him beat the players he is supposed to beat when he’s having an off day. He has always suffered from inconsistency and a tendency to get rattled and negative, and those issues cropped up again in the tournaments he’s played since Australia—they'll probably always crop up. But I think we’ll see better from Stan in Europe, and that should start with Davis Cup. Next week, Wawrinka will join Federer in Switzerland for a quarterfinal tie against Kazakhstan.
That is, when Federer is done with his own American campaign. The Swiss No. 2 faced very little resistance from Gasquet today. The Frenchman hit eight winners and committed 20 errors; saved just one of six break points; looked lost at the net, where he was two for eight; and managed to turn his famous backhand into a shank-machine. But Federer was sharp and took full advantage—he hit 25 winners against 13 errors, served well, and was five of six on break points. His backhand, which he eased down the line for winners, was especially strong. As Novak Djokovic has said, Federer has improved that shot this year.
Speaking of Nole, Federer moves one round closer to a semifinal rematch of their thriller last week in Indian Wells. First for Fed, though, will be another rematch, with Kei Nishikori in the quarters. The last time they played, in Madrid in 2013, Nishikori won. On that day, though, Federer was returning from a back injury. This time he’s considerably farther along in his comeback—maybe even, as he tweeted a week ago, in full flight. We’ll see how long this European keeps his feet on the ground in the States.