Apparently, even Roger Federer, with his record 16 Grand Slam titles, was in need of some advice on a wet and windy Wednesday at the French Open.
Forced off court by two rain delays, and “pushed,” as he put it, by a player with a career record below .500, Federer turned to Swiss Davis Cup captain Severin Luthi for words of wisdom during the breaks. Told to be more aggressive early, then to use more drop shots late, Federer survived for 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-4 victory over Alejandro Falla in the second round.
“Those were good things he told me,” said the top-ranked Federer, the French Open's defending champion for the first time. “Those little details make a crucial difference.”
The defending women's champion, sixth-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova, encountered quite a bit more trouble than Federer did — she faced four match points in the second set against 41st-ranked Andrea Petkovic and was so distraught she whacked herself in the leg with her racket.
Petkovic made matters easier with unforced groundstroke errors on all four of those chances to win, though, and Kuznetsova eventually came all the way back for a 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 victory — but not before wasting three match points of her own.
“I'm not really sure what happened,” Kuznetsova said. “I saw that she got tight.”
Other women moving into the third round included No. 2 Venus Williams, who walloped one serve at 128 mph in a 6-2, 6-4 victory over Arantxa Parra Santonja, then effortlessly volleyed aside a series of questions about her lace dress in the postmatch news conference. Also winning were No. 3 Caroline Wozniacki, No. 14 Flavia Pennetta, No. 15 Aravane Rezai, No. 19 Nadia Petrova and Williams' next opponent, No. 26 Dominika Cibulkova, a semifinalist last year.
Like Federer, Kuznetsova discussed tactics with her coach during a 1½-hour rain delay, part of an odd day of stops and starts. After three days of sun and temperatures in the 80s, Wednesday's breezes reached 15 mph, the thermometer dipped into the low 60s, and intermittent showers disrupted the schedule and changed the way the clay played, slowing the surface.
Some matches were postponed, and four in men's singles were stopped because of darkness, involving No. 4 Andy Murray, No. 13 Gael Monfils, No. 17 John Isner and No. 25 Marcos Baghdatis.
Monfils' match against Fabio Fognini in the main stadium was halted at 5-all in the fifth set a few minutes before 10 p.m., but only after all manner of theater. At 4-all, there was a prolonged discussion with tournament referee Stefan Fransson about whether to suspend the match; Fognini didn't care for the decision to continue and kept arguing, which led to Monfils being awarded a free point.
Then, with Monfils barely able to walk, let alone run, Fognini accrued three match points at 5-4, but failed to convert any, and had more choice words for the chair umpire while packing up his equipment for the night.
Nothing quite so dramatic happened on that same court several hours earlier, when Federer met Falla, a left-hander ranked 70th who entered the day 11-13 at Grand Slams, 53-60 overall.
Here, then, is what passes for intrigue when Federer faces anyone other than Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros: Falla flicked a passing shot up the line to break serve and take a 6-5 lead in the first set.
Given a chance to serve out the set, Falla put a forehand into the net, sailed a backhand wide, watched Federer snap a volley winner, then sent a backhand long. And from 4-all in the tiebreaker, Federer took three points in a row, including an inside-out forehand winner that landed on a line to end a 12-stroke exchange.
“He really pushed me to come up with something special, which I couldn't do in the first set, really,” said Federer, who hasn't lost to anyone at the French Open other than Nadal since 2005. “I definitely got a little bit lucky to get out of that one.”
The man Federer beat in last year's final, Robin Soderling, is looking strong again, having dropped a total of seven games through two matches in 2010.
His second rout came Wednesday against unseeded American Taylor Dent, a 6-0, 6-1, 6-1 victory that lasted a mere 71 minutes.
“That was fun, huh? I'd be a fool to say that I felt like I was in it at any stage,” Dent said. “It would be tough for me to beat the 12-and-under French champion, playing that way.”
Men's winners included No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, No. 10 Marin Cilic, No. 11 Mikhail Youzhny, No. 15 Tomas Berdych and Federer's next opponent, 165th-ranked qualifier Julian Reister.
For years, Federer used a part-time coach or went without a coach altogether, but for the past few seasons, Luthi has travelled with him, offering insights and scouting future foes.
“It's just good to have someone to be able to debate about my game and the opponents' game and come up with a game plan,” Federer said. “I have my ideas from all my experience, but then he's also seen my past matches — the last day, the last weeks, the practice sessions — and then he's got a good sense of what I'm doing well and not so well.”
Yes, the man widely considered the best tennis player in history acknowledges he can use a little help now and then.
“Maybe he doesn't have the biggest name in the game, because he wasn't No. 1 in the world himself or coached 15 other top guys,” Federer said of Luthi. “I don't think you necessarily need that to be a good coach.”
Probably doesn't hurt to have Federer as your boss, either.