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Federer squeezes out win

The world's No. 1 player comes up big in key moments and gets a little luck besides.

By KEITH NIEBUHR
Published April 3, 2006


KEY BISCAYNE - When Roger Federer's backhand return on match point trickled off the net and fell gently onto the other side of the court for a winner, the world's No. 1-ranked player wasn't sure how to react.

At first, he raised his arms.

Then, he clutched his head.

Finally, Federer just shrugged.

"That was a lucky match point," Federer would say moments later.

But one that was a microcosm of Sunday's Nasdaq-100 Open final, a match in which Federer won by the slimmest of margins - 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (8-6) - over Ivan Ljubicic and needed every shot in his arsenal, along with a few good breaks. Federer produced just a 124-121 edge in total points during the 2-hour, 56-minute duel, but seemed to win at each crucial moment.

"I'm happy with the way I played," Federer said. "That was a tough match."

Though Federer entered 27-1 for the year with three tournament titles, Ljubicic, a 27-year-old Croat who cracked the top 10 for the first time last year, is playing the best tennis of his career. He is second to Federer in 2006 match wins and was riding a wave of confidence the likes of which his career hasn't seen. Federer had won six straight against Ljubicic and nine of 12 before Sunday, but many meetings had been close.

"Ten seconds after the match, you're mad because you think you were close," Ljubicic said. "But after a week, I'm going to be proud of the way I played."

From the start, Ljubicic, whose powerful serve ranks among the sport's best, gave Federer fits. But while he continually won on serve, he couldn't break Federer, and when the two played to a first-set tiebreaker Federer won it with one of his eight aces.

After a back-and-forth battle produced a second-set tiebreaker, Ljubicic surged to a 4-1 lead and appeared on the verge of evening the match. But two straight unforced errors by Ljubicic (he had 53 Sunday, two days after 17 in a semifinal win over David Nalbandian) helped put Federer back in command. On set point, he forced Ljubicic into a forehand on the run that fell harmlessly into the net.

"When you play a tiebreak against him, he never misses," Ljubicic said. "He never gives you anything. He comes up with the big shots when it's really important."

Down, but not deflated, Ljubicic didn't quit.

A break of Federer helped give him a 3-1 lead in the third, but the Swiss star fought back to 3-all, then went up 4-3 on a backhand winner at the net that left a dejected look on his opponent's face. In the tiebreaker, Ljubicic had a chance to extend the match, but trailing 5-6 Federer hit a monster serve Ljubicic couldn't return. Another service winner moved Federer ahead 7-6, setting up his net cord shot that ended the drama.

"It's funny when that happens on match point for a tournament victory," Federer said, smiling.

Federer, 24, has 37 career titles, including this one last year, and has held the No.1 spot in the rankings since Feb. 2, 2004. That streak is the third longest in ATP Tour history. In his last 45 matches against top-10 opponents, he is 42-3. On American soil, he has won 48 straight times.

"I think in the end when you draw the line, he probably played a little better than me," Ljubicic said.