Five-time former champion Roger Federer may not have been amongst the hot favourites heading into the US Open this year, but he remains a huge draw in New York and would be an exceedingly popular champion. But he faces a second-round challenge in the form of the mercurial Frenchman Benoit Paire, who though not the strongest of players mentally, has a big game. Will he be able to derail Federer or will the Swiss have too much?
Federer and Paire have met six times in the past and the numbers make grim reading for the Frenchman. Or at least they did. In their first five meetings Paire could not lay a glove on Federer, losing all five in straight sets, a run that included 6-1 6-3 maulings in Dubai and Basel last year. But when they met earlier this year in the second round in Halle, Paire ran Federer perilously close. He forced two match points, but could not take them and Federer eventually prevailed 6-3 3-6 7-6.
Path to the second round
Federer arrived in New York having taken a bruising 4-6 4-6 defeat to Novak Djokovic in the Cincinnati final to add to the 6-2 7-6 5-7 4-6 11-13 loss he suffered in the last eight at Wimbledon. In short, the past months had not been particularly kind to the 20-time Grand Slam champion. But he managed to find a positive feeling again under the lights in New York. His first-round opponent Yoshihito Nishioka paid the price as Federer swept him aside in a 6-2 6-2 6-4 win.
Paire, perhaps predictably, made rather harder work of his first-round match. It pitted him against the Austrian qualifier Dennis Novak, who had scored three dominant wins already in Flushing Meadows to reach the main draw. And he had his chances against Paire. Indeed, on another day it might have been a straight sets win for Novak. But as it was, Paire stayed strong mentally in the crucial moments and Novak didn’t. The result was a 7-6 3-6 7-5 7-6 Paire win.
How do they match up?
Federer is loved not only because he was the first of three all-time greats to burst onto the scene in the last decade, but also because of the manner in which he plays the game. Which is aggressively. His forehand is an excellent shot, and he used it to cut through Nishioka’s defence with ease in the first round. His backhand is also much-improved, with coach Ivan Ljubicic and a larger racquet face encouraging him to come over it more often with profitable results.
But it is his serve which is his most important weapon. And it is that which Paire will have to work hardest to counter. Unfortunately, the Frenchman is not known as a returner. He does have a big, if unreliable first serve, and he landed an impressive 21 aces against Novak, though at the cost of eight double faults. Off the ground his backhand is his best shot, and it is excellent, but his forehand is shaky at the best of times and likely to receive a stern examination from Federer.
Federer looked very sharp against Nishioka. It was a far better performance than any of the five he delivered in Cincinnati. Admittedly, Nishioka proved a fairly obliging opponent for Federer in terms of the matchup, but the Swiss was surely pleased with the way he was hitting the ball, particularly his final tally of 56 winners. If he plays as well against Paire as he did in the first round he will win. Expect another straight sets, if not quite as comfortable, Federer win.