World number 3 Roger Federer suffered his earliest loss of the season as Spanish qualifier Albert Ramos-Vinolas held his nerve to eke out a thrilling 7-6(4), 2-6, 6-3 win in the Shanghai night.
The defending champion struggled for rhythm for much of the match in the longer rallies against the left-handed Spaniard, whose strategy sometimes resembled that of his much more accomplished countryman Rafael Nadal – pinning Federer in his backhand corner, before unleashing blistering forehands down the line with precision that belied his ranking.
Federer came into the tournament as defending champion, handed what many believed to be a gentle draw. Ramos-Vinolas had, after all, never beaten a top 10 player in his career in 15 attempts, and had lost 35 of 37 sets played against them. Doubling that total against a man whose only losses in the last five months have come at the hands of Novak Djokovic in Grand Slam finals wasn’t something most would take a punt on.
After a cagey opening game where the Spaniard staved off a pair of break points, the first set found both players unable to make many inroads in their opponent’s service games. Federer had, invariably, looked the more likely, and was expected to do the business in the ensuing tiebreak.
However, an uncharacteristic error at 2-2 by the Swiss handed his opponent the first mini-break of the set, one that the qualifier managed to retain all throughout the breaker, clinching it 7-4 after a cross-court forehand from Federer strayed wide.
Federer came out roaring in the second set, breaking Ramos-Vinolas’s serve early on, and then a second time for good measure, as the loss of the opening frame began to look like a temporary blip in an inexorable victory.
It continued to feel that way for large parts of the third set, even though it remained on serve, with the Spaniard’s serve holding up under a bit of pressure in a couple of service games. Federer had not faced a single break point all match, and looked like he would break serve sooner rather than later. In any case, it was unlikely the Swiss maestro would repeat his mistakes from the opening set, should this one go to a tiebreak.
Maybe it was this sort of complacency that afflicted Federer in the eighth game of the set, as his opponent caught him napping, two excellent points giving him a 0-30 lead. It roused the crowd, upon whom it looked the Spaniard had sneaked up just as he had on Federer, as they began to sense danger for the first time. It wasn’t too long before Federer was down 15-40, with Ramos having two break points to serve for the match.
Federer snuffed the first one out with an ace down the tee, but it was the second one that really encapsulated his opponent’s game plan. After an excellent return, he kept Federer tied in his backhand corner with looping topspin forehands, but as soon as he found an opening, drilled one to the other side. Federer, who was already heading left to cover his backhand, had no chance. The match was on Ramos-Vinolas’s racket.
Federer looked to have created a half-chance, carving out an opening for a 15-30 lead, but a couple of frustrating errors gave his opponent his first match point. The Swiss, who last year saved five match points against Leonardo Mayer at this very stage of this very tournament, could not conjure up the same magic 12 months on, as a backhand return floated wide to spark delirium in the Spaniard’s camp, who celebrated a career-defining victory that his grandchildren will surely get to hear of many times over.
“I thought I played okay considering it was my first match here,” Federer said afterwards. “Unfortunately I couldn’t win the first set because I had to create my chances. Then I was able to play better in the second set. He did a good job. You could see he’s been in the groove, he was playing a good match. It was just unfortunate. I’m disappointed.”
The loss consolidates Andy Murray’s position as World number two for the upcoming weeks. The Scot supplanted Federer last week, and Federer needed to defend his title to have a chance of getting it back.
Ramos-Vinolas plays Frenchman Jo-Wilfred Tsonga in the next round.