In defeating Ernests Gulbis, Roger Federer has finally sent the memo that he's back on track.
Roger Federer makes his living taking tiny steps around the geometrically finite dimensions of a 27' by 78' large tennis court. Yesterday, metaphorically speaking, he took much larger steps.
In fighting back against Latvian sensation Ernests Gulbis — the very same man who unceremoniously bounced him from the Rome draw two weeks ago — Federer has seemingly killed a myriad birds with one single stone.
Firstly, he's taken the power back from the young and upwardly mobile Gulbis, and this is like having money in the pocket should the two meet again in Roland Garros. Secondly, in advancing to the Madrid semi-finals, Federer will get another match in which he can tune up his game for Roland Garros. Thirdly, by gutting out a tough match against one of the strongest players on tour at the moment, the Swiss Maestro has given his confidence the necessary lift that it needed going into the ATP tour's second Grand-Slam of the year.
Federer, after being blasted out of the first set by an ornery Gulbis, stiffened his resolve and settled down to play some of his most exquisite tennis of the season. As many of us know, that's not saying much. And that is precisely why his 3-set victory over Gulbis could not have come at a better time. After disappointing losses in each of the Masters events of 2010, even the mighty Federer himself had to know that another tournament without at least a semi-final appearance would leave him gloriously under prepared for a Roland Garros title defense - especially given that the Spaniards (not just Nadal mind you, but practically all of them) are playing out of this world at the moment.
Federer's poor spring is nothing unusual. He shocked the tennis world in 2009 with a stretch of "average tennis" that left him as the clear underdog heading into the clay court season. But somehow Federer was able to shift the tide and ride a surprise upset of Nadal in Madrid last year to a summer of non-stop excellence. That memorable summer left him as a holder of the career Grand-Slam and the record for most Grand-Slams (15) of all time.
Now Federer has 16 Slams. But this year, for reasons unbeknownst to us — could it be age, lack of interest, or the emotional demands of parenting? — Federer has managed to play at a level far below his surprisingly lethargic form of spring 2009.
At least until yesterday.
Confidence is one of the essential ingredients to world class tennis, and even a player like Federer, who knows full well of the genius he is capable of, needs a healthy diet of it in order to play the breathtaking and decisive brand of tennis that will be necessary for him to put his best foot forward at the French.
But even tennis geniuses like Federer have to work for that confidence. It was imperative that Federer put together a string of solid play this week in Madrid. With wins over Wawrinka and Gulbis (editors note: he's just taken the first set from red-hot David Ferrer) Roger is starting to get bits and pieces of his swagger back. Who knows, by this time tomorrow, he may have it all back.
There are no guarantees in Grand-Slam tennis, even for a man who has stormed his way to 23 consecutive semi-final appearances. There is only the moment, and the courage that comes from the confidence that you can win.
Federer, after a long hard spring, is finally starting to believe.