x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Lucky loser is the next man in Roger Federer's way at French Open

"Since I was little, I've watched Roger play on TV", says Belgium's Daniel Goffin, the world No 109.

Roger Federer beat France's Nicolas Mahut in his third-round match at the French Open.
Roger Federer beat France's Nicolas Mahut in his third-round match at the French Open.

PARIS // If it seems Roger Federer breaks one record or another every time he wins a match, that is because he does these days.

Then again, good as Federer is, he can't top this: His next opponent at the French Open, Belgium's David Goffin, is unbeaten in Grand Slam main-draw matches. (OK, so the kid's only 3-0, but still.)

Yes, before Federer can take on Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros this year, he will need to defeat Goffin, the first "lucky loser" - a player beaten in qualifying who sneaks into the field via someone's withdrawal - to reach the fourth round at any Grand Slam tournament in 17 years, and only the seventh to make it that far.

"Now I'm playing against Roger," the 109th-ranked Goffin said after beating Lukasz Kubot of Poland 7-6 (4), 7-5, 6-1 on Friday, "and I can't believe it."

A fresh-faced 21-year-old whose voice was barely a whisper and whose hands fidgeted during an extended interview session with reporters, the slender, 5ft 11ins Goffin matter-of-factly discussed displaying photos and posters of 16-time Grand Slam champion Federer in his bedroom as a child.

"Since I was little, I've watched Roger play on TV. To me, he plays almost perfect tennis. His technique is perfect. I also like him at the human level; he's a very good person on and off the court," said Goffin, who was able to make his Grand Slam debut because France's Gael Monfils pulled out with a knee injury. "I expect a very tough match on Sunday, of course. I don't really know how I'll prepare for it, but I'll try to have fun."

Informed that his next opponent is an unabashed fan, Federer grinned and replied, "Not the first time it happens."

Probably so. After all, the 30-year-old Federer has been winning major titles since 2003, when Goffin was 12. He's been winning Grand Slam matches since 2000, and Friday's 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 victory over Nicolas Mahut was Federer's 235th, adding to his Open era record.

Federer happened to catch a bit of Goffin's second-round matchup against Arnaud Clement, the 2001 Australian Open runner-up who said this would be his final French Open.

The condensed scouting report?

"Nice game. Smooth ball-striker. And talented, obviously," Federer said. "Otherwise, he wouldn't be coming that far in this tournament."

That match against Clement went five sets, as did Goffin's first-round victory over 23rd-seeded Radek Stepanek - the only five-setters of his career. Against Kubot at intimate, 1,559-seat Court 7, Goffin was raucously cheered by flag-waving, chorus-singing supporters who made the short trip from Belgium.

"It gave me wings," Goffin said. "I felt as if I was playing at home."

Coincidentally, the last "lucky loser" to make it this far at a major tournament was also Belgian, Dick Norman, who did it at Wimbledon in 1995.

Now comes by far the toughest test of Goffin's young career.

Or, looked at another way, a "bonus," as he put it: the thrill of standing across the net from his favorite player and seeing how he stacks up.

Asked whether he believes he can defeat Federer, Goffin said, "If I say yes, it might sound pretentious. And if I say no, it will look like a lack of ambition. We'll see. I'll prepare like I do for other matches. I'll try to go for my shots and have fun on a big court."

Whichever man advances will stay on course for a possible semi-final showdown against Djokovic, who stretched his Grand Slam winning streak to 24 matches with a 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 win over Nicolas Devilder of France.

Heading on court after No 18 Stanislas Wawrinka's five-set victory over No 11 Gilles Simon, Djokovic and Devilder didn't get started until 7.48pm French time. But Djokovic was efficient as could be, wrapping things up at 9.32pm, just as the sun was about to set.