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Federer's early workout

Defending champion rallies against Serbia's Tipsarevic in rare five-set match, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (1), 5-7, 6-1, 10-8. He says it's not such a bad thing.

January 20, 2008|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Even the man who produces classics on demand wasn't quite sure what tone it set for his title chances at the Australian Open after it took nearly 4 1/2 hours and 39 aces to subdue his Serbian opponent.

Perhaps, somewhat ominously for top-seeded Roger Federer, the Serb on the other side of the court wasn't No. 3 Novak Djokovic, but Djokovic's wingman, the Dostoevsky-loving Janko Tipsarevic.

"We'll see," Federer said after defeating Tipsarevic, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (1), 5-7, 6-1, 10-8, in the third round Saturday. "We'll see how it goes. But honestly, for me it's good to play five-setters once in a while. It gives me a lot of information, how I'm feeling, and what I still have to work on, maybe. Just being there in a five-setter is good for me because I'm hardly ever there."

Federer's five-set record is an un-Federer-like 11-10. And he certainly isn't accustomed to going five as early as the third round. It took five sets for him to go out the last time he exited in the Australian Open in 2005, losing, 9-7, in the fifth to Marat Safin. But that was in the semifinals.

He was pushed to five against Tommy Haas in the fourth round in Melbourne, in 2006, winning, 6-2, in the decider. That marathon didn't take an overly punishing toll, though, as he next beat Nikolay Davydenko in four sets and went on to win the title.

Not all marathons are created equal. After Andy Roddick needed 40 games in the fifth set, winning 21-19, here in the quarterfinals in 2003 against Younes El Aynaoui, he appeared to be on fumes in the next round against Rainer Schuttler and faded in four sets.

Eighteen games in the fifth isn't shabby, but it's not 40, and Federer-Tipsarevic was not played under debilitating conditions in the hot sun (nor was Roddick-El Aynaoui). This one started and finished under a closed roof at Rod Laver Arena because of rain.

There is ample evidence to support dueling theories about Federer's state of game.

Did Tipsarevic's aggressive game plan expose Federer's vulnerability, as the Serb said, and rightly so, that he outplayed him from the baseline?

All this suggested that Federer may not be enjoying the rise of the Serbs as much as everyone else in the sport

Then there's the thought that Federer, whose serve turned out to be the lifeboat, is more impervious to pressure than ever, succeeding on a decidedly off-day against an opponent, ranked 49th, playing the match of his life.

"You have to believe that you're going to beat Roger Federer when you go on court, as stupid as it might sound," Tipsarevic said. "If you go out there thinking, 'I'm going to play a good match, make him sweat for his money,' it's not going to work.

"Because then when the chances are given to you, and even Roger Federer is giving chances, you're not going to use them because you're going to be too afraid from victory."

Federer next plays Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic, which carries pluses and minuses. Berdych beat him at the Olympics in 2004, but has come up curiously empty at the Slams, including an odd retirement against Roddick at the U.S. Open last year.

But Tipsarevic deserves one last word or two. With his hip glasses and tattoos, he looked like the front man for one of the alternative bands due to show up here shortly for yearly Australian music festival, Big Day Out. The 23-year-old son of a professor has the soul of a playwright in a PlayStation world.

He said he is reading Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" for the third time.

Federer, who was pleased to be part of such an epic, was asked what he was reading, answering: "Maybe his, once he's done. I'm not reading any books at the moment. I've got homework to do."

After all, one player reads the classics, the other wins them.

--

lisa.dillman@latimes.com

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