Ruben Bemelmans has never won a main-tour title, not even reached a final. He topped out his ranking at No84 back in 2015 and now, age 30, the Belgian was at 116.
When it came to the ABN AMRO Championships in Rotterdam, he had fallen twice in the first round of qualifying, finally making it into the main draw this year for the first time. One more thing he had never done in almost a dozen years on the pro tour was play Roger Federer. That was, he admitted on Sunday, his biggest wish: To be the qualifier who was drawn against the Swiss for his first match. He got his wish.
There had, of late, been signs that the left-hander was in that late-bloomer class of player. He beat Lucas Pouille at the Australian Open last month. He reached his first semi-final last October via Nick Kyrgios, and qualified for Wimbledon, going on to reach the third round there for the first time. He also took one Challenger title from three finals. He would, in short, be no pushover.
But he had to face a heavy dose of reality. Federer was in Rotterdam, riding some superb form, to try and claim something that was big even by his own standards.
Following the Swiss star’s remarkable come-back from knee surgery last year to bag his first Majors since 2012—two of them—plus three Masters among a tally of seven titles, he rose to contest the No1 ranking at the end of the season. Rafael Nadal held him off, but now, after winning the Australian Open again, Federer could almost taste that No1 ranking.
With Nadal not playing until the end of the month, and with more points to defend in Acapulco than Federer would defend in Dubai, he could not hold off his rival if the Swiss reached the semi-finals here. And not only would that be an extraordinary feat for a man who already holds the record for most weeks at No1—a position he last held five and a half years ago—it would make him the oldest player, man or woman, to hold the top spot, age 36.
He would not contemplate the possibility himself until after this year’s Australian Open, but having closed the points gap to a mere 155, he had the bit between his teeth.
“I always said I would only look at the rankings once the Australian was over and I honestly wasn’t expecting to win Australia again. I thought that by not winning the World Tour Finals that the No1 was never going to happen again, or was going to be out of sight. And that’s how I played the Australian, not thinking about the rankings.
“But I always had the flexibility in February… and I just thought I’d love to go play Rotterdam and give it a go there—and then always have the option to go to Dubai… And of course, having the option to become the world No1 is highly motivating and exciting to say the least.”
And his demeanour in Rotterdam has borne witness to that determination. He came straight to the Ahoy on Sunday night for a practice, had two more practice sessions on Monday, and another yesterday—against a left-hander in preparation for Bemelmans.
Like all the great players in any sport, Federer learned long ago not to take any opponent or match for granted, and he had at least three of them in Rotterdam if he was to achieve his target.
Even with friend and rival Stan Wawrinka out of the equation after a lack-lustre first-round match, there were plenty of unknowns, including the 21-year-old Tallon Griekspoor, a fearless and big-hitting home wild card who beat Wawrinka in three sets.
And Bemelmans had nothing to lose, either. Fulfilling an ambition on one of tennis’s biggest indoor courts and to a sell-out crowd? Nothing gets the competitive juices flowing better than that combination.
But the same juices get Federer motivated, too, and with his current incentive, and clearly feeling fitter and fresher than he was at this time last year, he burst from the gates to break in the second game—thumping a volley at an opponent who had had the temerity to come to the net, too.
And so it went on, Federer firing on all cylinders, Bemelmans struggling to contain the onslaught. All at once, Federer was a 5-0, but the Belgian drew an enthusiastic ovation when he held for 5-1. The relief was temporary: Federer served it out, 6-1, in just 18 minutes.
And that was how the second set went too. Bemelmans found some decent shots, rushed the net, lobbed with some success, but Federer was moving so fast, anticipating so well, that very little got past him. He broke immediately, and far from resting on his laurels, he chased down a lob, rushed the net twice, ducked and dived to break again, 5-2—and that was it. A clean hold and he was already at the net after the winning smash to shake hands. It had taken 47 minutes, and taken him one step nearer to No1.
Yes, Federer is a generous, friendly, and generally laid-back character—until he is on court with a racket in his hand. Then he takes no prisoners. Asked about the 12-0 record he has over his next opponent, Kohlschreiber, he grinned:
“Well I never underestimate anyone—this could be unlucky 13.”
Few of the many thousands in the Ahoy arena believed that for a minute.
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