Federer off to a flying start

Roger Federer went a long way towards dispelling doubts about his fitness to remain world number one for a third successive year with a successful defence of his Qatar Open title in Doha on Saturday.

Federer’s 6-3, 7-6 (7/5) win in a fine final over Gael Monfils, the exciting 19-year-old Frenchman, suggested that the Swiss star can feel he has started the new year with a decent recovery from the ankle injury that spoilt the end of his 2005.

The Wimbledon and United States Open champion moved comfortably, hit deceptively hard with his inside-out forehand and came into the net more than usual for the 34th title of his career.

Perhaps more significantly it was also Federer’s 45th successive win on hard courts, the surface on which he will try to regain the title at the first grand slam of the year, the Australian Open, which will begin in Melbourne in a week’s time.

“I knew that all it takes is the chance of one big win for a young player to break through,” said Federer of the ambitious 19-year-old Monfils. “So I knew that this was a dangerous match.”

Federer did not start well, making three unforced errors in his opening service game and dropping it. And when he earned a point to break back immediately, he was not able to take it.

Surprisingly Monfils, who claimed not to have done himself justice in his three previous finals, looked completely relaxed.
He even came close to going 4-1 and two breaks of ahead when he got Federer at 15-40 on the champion’s next service game.

Federer played his way immaculately out of that hole, and at 3-2 Monfils showed his first signs of inexperience, over-pressing with two backhand straight drives, over-hitting with both, dropping serve and suffering an immediate decline of confidence, losing 13 points in a row.

By then Federer was playing with smooth assurance, even if he was not quite at his best, and rapidly closed out the first set in full control.

It got worse for Monfils when he double-faulted to drop serve immediately at the start of the second set, at which stage it seemed the whole pack of cards might fold for him.

But he found himself again, cut down the pace, worked his way quite astutely back into it and in the second set the match became a high-quality encounter, full of varied patterns and long rallies.

He even led 5-3 in the tie-break, forcing Federer to produce four top-class points to pull it out.

Monfils, whose best quality was his speed, had an unorthodox preparation for the final, which included performing with a belly dancer at the official dinner.

“I’ve been too nervous in my previous finals and didn’t enjoy them,” the extrovert Parisian explained. “If I was going to play better, I thought it was best to try to be more relaxed and enjoy myself this time.”

And he did that.

Federer, in his 102nd week as world number one, travels to an exhibition event in Melbourne on Monday before seeking to avenge his shock defeat to Marat Safin in last year’s Australian Open semifinal.—Sapa-AFP

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