Federer quickest qualifier for Tennis Masters Cup

Updated: August 3, 2004, 11:27 PM ET

CINCINNATI -- Top-ranked Roger Federer lost for the first time in 24 matches when he was beaten by Slovakian Dominik Hrbaty 1-6, 7-6, 6-4 in the first round of the Cincinnati Masters on Tuesday.

Had he won, the Wimbledon and Australian Open champion, who beat Andy Roddick to win the Toronto Masters on Sunday, would have equaled the 24-match winning streak set by Pete Sampras in 1999.

Hrbaty is ranked 21st in the world and has won three ATP titles this year.

"You have to do everything to be ready [for tournaments]," a weary Federer said. "It's obviously difficult to bounce back from victories. It may have been one tournament too much for me to keep winning, so I can't be too disappointed.

"I have had a great run, and I have a few more days off, and that's the positive side to it."

Notwithstanding the loss, on Tuesday Federer became the quickest qualifier ever for the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup, an eight-player event Nov. 13-21 in Houston.

The 22-year-old has had runaway success in 2004. He is 57-5 this year, with a tour-high eight titles, including two majors and three ATP Masters Series titles.

"I'm very happy to qualify for the Tennis Masters Cup for the third time in succession," Federer said. "I always play well at the Tennis Masters Cup, and last year's title was one of the best tournament wins of my career."

The two-time Wimbledon champion has been No. 1 since February, when he overtook Roddick in the entry rankings.

Roddick won his opener Tuesday night, rallying to defeat Max Mirnyi 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 6-3.

"We all marvel at Federer's remarkable form that has resulted in this unprecedented early qualification," ATP CEO Mark Miles said. "Tennis fans throughout the world not only are thoroughly enjoying watching Roger's style and superb level of play, but they also are witnessing the emergence of one of the greatest champions in tennis' history."

The loss Tuesday was Federer's first defeat since losing in the third round of the French Open at the end of May and came only two days after he repeated his Wimbledon final victory over world No. 2 Roddick with a spectacular performance in Toronto.

Then, as now, the Swiss warned he was exhausted, which may explain why, after dominating the first set, he failed to capitalize on several good chances in the second, missing break points in the third and fifth games.

Federer then played an uneven tiebreak, following great shots with indifferent ones to lose 9-7 after overhitting a backhand drive.

In the third set, the Swiss had little difficulty holding serve until the ninth game, when he again lapsed, conceding the game with a forehand drive struck uncharacteristically wide.

"It was a pity I couldn't win in two sets," Federer said. "I had chances definitely in the second set. I thought I played really well for one and a half sets and missed opportunities in the second set and he made me pay.

"At the start he was giving me quite a few points and missing shots, but in the second and third he wasn't and played really well." Hrbaty took his chances well, both in the tiebreak and while serving out for the match without fuss, but the impression persisted that the real winner here was Federer's schedule.

The early exit will allow him more preparation time for the Olympic Games in Athens starting Aug. 13.

It also made defending champion Roddick the favorite to win the Cincinnati title again, though he came perilously close to a first-round defeat before overcoming Mirnyi of Belarus.

The American was a set down and trailed 5-4 in the second set tiebreaker with two Mirnyi serves to come.

However, just when Roddick seemed out of it, he produced a pair of great returns of serve to turn the tiebreak back in his favour.

"He definitely could have closed me out, and at that point I felt I definitely deserved to lose," admitted the champion, who found the conditions much quicker than those in Toronto.

But Roddick appeared to want to avoid defeat more than Federer did.

Often he fretted and fumed, once he whacked himself on the head with his racket, and on another occasion knocked over a television microphone at the back of the court.

His desire to succeed may have been crucial in helping him survive for a third meeting with Germany's Nicolas Kiefer in as many weeks.