Baby steps? Federer beats Monfils, finds clay feet at Madrid

The three-time Madrid Open champion was pushed to three sets by the Frenchman after dismantling Richard Gasquet in his first match on clay in three years.

Roger Federer plays a backhanded return against Gael Monfils in his round-of-16 match the Madrid Masters.   -  Getty Images

Roger Federer may have described his return to clay court tennis after three years as a journey into “no-man’s land,” but his performance at the Madrid Open has been anything but the “baby steps” he said he was taking, as a smooth opening match was followed by a tough test against an unpredictable opponent.

The 2009 French Open champion dismantled Richard Gasquet 6-2, 6-3 in the round of 32, striking 28 winners and not facing a break point, breezing past in only 52 minutes on Court Manolo Santana.

READ: Federer taking 'baby steps' on clay return at Madrid Open

Federer then delivered a bagel in the first set against his next opponent, Gael Monfils, before being broken in his opening service game of the second. Federer broke back to level at 4-4, but Monfils took the set 6-4 after the Swiss saved the first of two set points on his serve.

The match seemed to getting away from Federer – who moved up to world No. 3 again after Sascha Zverev failed to retain his title at Munich last week – as Monfils broke him twice in the decider to serve at 4-1. Federer levelled the set at 4-4, but his famous nerves showed as Monfils had to match points on Federer’s serve at 5-6 as the 12th game of the set went to deuce four times before the Swiss held.

In the tiebreak, Federer immediately got the mini-break to go ahead 3-0, before wrapping up the tiebreak 7-3 and the match.

Tentative Federer, wary opponents

“You know, I’m taking baby steps at this point. To be honest, I didn’t play one point – not one shot on clay last year. Two years ago I played two days,” Federer had said before the tournament, which he has won once on hard court and twice on clay, began. “Three years ago I played not feeling great in Monaco and Rome and all that. So it’s been so little that I really don’t know what to expect.”

Despite his caution, his long-time rivals are wary of underestimating the 20-time Grand Slam champion next week.

“Everything is possible for Roger,” said world No. 7 Kei Nishikori who at least can boast winning his only clay court meeting with Federer – at Madrid in 2013. “Winning Roland Garros might be tougher for him than winning the Australian Open or Wimbledon, but I’m sure he can do anything if he tries 100 percent.”

With his career in its twilight, the Swiss decided to re-enter a realm of tennis for so long dominated by rival Rafael Nadal – and Madrid seemed the logical venue. Federer has won two of his 11 clay titles in the Spanish capital where the high altitude helps him negate the traditionally pedestrian pace of the dusty surface.