KEY BISCAYNE, Florida: That was vintage Roger Federer on display Sunday in the Sony Open.
Not for long, as he took barely an hour to dispose of Thiemo De Bakker 6-3, 6-3 at Crandon Park Tennis Center. The sun-splashed crowd at the stadium court was treated to old-style Swiss dominance as Federer kept the Dutchman off balance with his serve and a deft array of passing shots.
It was Federer of 2005-06 when he won this tournament back to back and was collecting grand slam titles like cookies in a buffet line. It was the second dominant performance in two matches here and improved his record for the year to 21-3 in a renaissance that belies his 32 years and the No. 5 ranking that is climbing yet reflects that he has slipped off the top pedestal.
In trying to explain how Federer is seemingly turning back the clock, many want to credit technology. He will concede that finally giving up his old-school racket for a more modern version with a larger head that is actually lighter and packs more wallop is a factor.
But, is it the instrument or the maestro that is making sweet music again?
“I’m happy it’s working so well, because I’m very pleased with what I’m feeling now with the hand, with my stick,” Federer said. “But then again, I can play very good tennis. I know that. I have proven it in the past. Just because I had a little bit of a letdown last year because of injury doesn’t mean I forgot how to play.”
Federer has said it was a mistake to try to play through back problems in 2013 when he went 36-13, a bad season for him. Regaining his health and a strong month of offseason training helped him reach the semifinals of the Australian Open.
“That gave me the belief that the racket’s working, my body is holding up, my mind is better,” he said. “If you don’t live in the past you have to create your own future, and for that I need to make sure I keep believing. Now the confidence is back and now everything is pretty simple like it used to be.”
Sunday, Federer won 85 percent of his first-serve points and never faced a break point. He committed only 10 unforced errors to 25 for De Bakker.
In women’s play, South Florida hopefuls Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys lost to high seeds. Venus Williams held off unseeded Aussie Casey Dellacqua 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 in a 2-hour, 18-minute marathon.
So far the men are on track toward the anticipated showdowns of the second week. Defending champion Andy Murray had no trouble moving into the fourth round, breezing past Feliciano Lopez 6-4, 6-1.
In the most compelling men’s match, No. 11 seed Jo-Wildried Tsonga fended off an upset bid by Marcos Baghdatis 4-6, 7-6 (6), 7-5. Tsonga and Murray will meet in the next round, while Federer faces Richard Gasquet.
Stephens remained winless in four meetings with No. 11 seed Caroline Wozniacki in a 6-1, 6-0 mismatch. Stephens, the 17 seed and hometown favorite, had vocal support from the stadium court crowd in the evening session but couldn’t crack Wozniacki’s quiet efficiency.
The cheers of encouragement turned to uncomfortable murmurs as Stephens was swept away in a cascade of errors, a staggering 34 to eight by Wozniacki.
“Just a really disappointing night. Just got my butt kicked,” said Stephens, who turned 21 Thursday. “I tried a lot of things, it just wasn’t my night.”
Keys was unable to exploit early advantages in both sets in falling to world’s No. 2 Na Li 7-6 (3), 6-3.
Keys, at 19 the youngest woman in the top 50 (No. 38), had three set points on serve up 5-3 in the opener, but couldn’t put it away. She saw the set slip away despite breaking Li’s serve three times.
In the second set, Keys took the first two games and was on the brink of a double break at 15-40, only to see Li battle back again to hold serve. That began a blitz of five consecutive games as Li seized control of the match.
There were nine service breaks in the match. Li broke five times but struggled with her own serve, committing seven double faults.
“She’s No. 2 in the world for a reason,” Keys said. “I played well at times, and she just played the bigger points really, really well.”
Keys had her best Sony showing in winning two matches.
A powerful baseline player with a big serve, Keys had six aces to Li’s none. But she is still learning to manage rallies against savvy, experience players such as Li.
Keys was upbeat in defeat, taking some lessons from her latest encounter with Li, who she has beaten once in three meetings, the win coming on clay in Madrid.
“Just almost in a way learning from her a little bit,” Keys said. “You know, going for your shots, believing in yourself, and just really going after it and not playing passive.”