Fears that Roger Federer's back injury would leave him struggling to make his mark on the Tennis Masters Cup were realised here today when the world No 2 was beaten 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 by Gilles Simon in his opening match.
Although the defending champion can still qualify for the semi-finals, a defeat against the least fancied player in the tougher of the two groups has left him with a major challenge in his remaining round-robin matches against Andy Murray and Andy Roddick. The latter pair met in today's other match, Murray winning 6-4, 1-6, 6-1.
Federer, who is attempting to win the Masters Cup for the fifth time in six years, pulled out of the Paris Masters less than a fortnight ago with a sore back and came here having had little chance to prepare properly. He said he had held himself back for fear of causing further damage and had not been able to hit many serves in practice for the tournament
A lack of penetration on his serve was a particular factor – Federer hit only three aces – though almost every department of his game was below par. The Swiss made 50 unforced errors, including 31 on his favoured forehand. "At least now I have three sets under my belt and hopefully I'll play better in the next match," he said afterwards.
Simon, the world No 9, made the elite eight-man field only after Rafael Nadal pulled out with a knee injury. The 23-year-old Frenchman, who plays Murray next, has never gone beyond the third round of a Grand Slam but has now won both his matches against Federer, having also beaten the former world No 1 at the Toronto Masters in July.
"The better you play, the better he plays," Federer said. "He's quite an unusual player. He makes you work hard and runs very well. I definitely missed shots today that I don't normally. I think that's just lack of practice."
Federer's performance was all too typical of his up-and-down year. The Swiss served poorly in the opening set, but broke Simon in the fifth game. He broke again early in the second set, but Simon hit back immediately and went on to level the match. Federer seemed to have weathered a storm when he came back from 0-40 down to save his serve in the decider, but Simon broke to go 5-3 up before securing his victory with an ace.
"The serve was definitely a factor today," Federer said. "I was cautious and on top of that my serve just wasn't feeling good. Basically I haven't been serving all week, except for maybe 50 serves over the last nine days.
"That's what sometimes happens. The shoulder gets a little rusty and things don't work out the way you want it. I still expect myself to get more serves in. I didn't serve full blast, especially from the start. I don't know if that cost me the match. I was still in a position to win. It was a pity I couldn't get to the finish line before him."
Federer's next opponent is Roddick. When it was suggested to the American that the US Open champion might be more vulnerable given his defeat to Simon he reminded the questioner what had followed his only previous defeat in 18 round-robin matches at this tournament. That was 12 months ago, when Federer was beaten by Fernando Gonzalez but went on to beat Nikolay Davydenko and Roddick in the group stages and Nadal and David Ferrer in the semi-finals and final.