Commentary

Federer feels Britton's pain

Updated: August 31, 2009, 10:26 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Devin Britton nervously adjusted his blue K-Swiss ball cap and leaned into an easy warm-up forehand early Monday afternoon. It went 10 feet long.

"I was pretty scared," Britton said later.

Truth be told, it wasn't that easy. For the fellow on the other side of the net was Roger Federer. The same guy who is ranked No. 1 in the world, owns 15 major titles and was playing his 50th match at the U.S. Open.

Britton was playing his very first Grand Slam singles match in intimidatingly well-populated Arthur Ashe Stadium. The long, lean 18-year-old from Brandon, Miss., currently is ranked No. 1,370 and came in having won just one set in his brief professional career. You could practically see his nerve endings as he lost 12 of the first 13 points.

"My goal," Britton explained later, "is to not get crushed."

The first set, predictably, was over in 18 minutes. Britton's footwork slowed down and, in a classic case of overcompensation, he began to over-hit the ball. Federer won six of seven games and Britton looked dispirited. Youth, however, is resilient, and in the second set, Britton broke Federer's serve to take an astonishing 3-1 lead. The crowd cheered lustily. It was a nice moment, among several others, and something Britton will take away from his Grand Slam debut.

Federer was not particularly sharp in the first step of his quest to become the first man since Bill Tilden in 1925 to win his sixth straight U.S. Open title. The score was 6-1, 6-3, 7-5 and Britton managed to stretch the experience to a respectable 88 minutes. There was an eerily similar match on the women's side.

Serena Williams, the women's favorite in most minds, dispatched 19-year-old American Alexa Glatch 6-4, 6-1 in the match that followed Federer's on Ashe. Williams has never lost a first-round match at a major, running her record to 40-0.

"Playing Serena first round isn't the best draw you could possibly have, but I was excited," said Glatch, who is from Newport Beach, Calif., and is ranked No. 103 in the world. "You just try not to think about the occasion. You just kind of pretend it's just any other court, you're playing against any other opponent.

"But it's very hard to do, especially probably playing my first time out in the biggest stadium there is. It was pretty cool walking out there, I must say."

Federer, of course, has lost in the first round: famously, to Mario Ancic at Wimbledon in 2002 (a precursor to five straight titles at the All England Club) and then to Luis Horna the following year at Roland Garros. Since then? Federer has won all 26 of his first-round matches.

Britton, who received a wild-card berth in the main draw from the USTA, found out from Kelly Wolf, his Octagon agent, on Thursday. Initially, he thought it was a bad joke.

"I was pretty shocked," Britton said. "Then I got 15 text messages in a space of 10 minutes and I knew it was true. I was excited at first, then just a little bit bummed."

Still, he managed to wangle a hitting invitation with Rafael Nadal on Saturday afternoon and hit balls on Ashe twice before Monday's match. Britton -- who said the best players he had played previously were Marcos Baghdatis and Benjamin Becker -- was excited and nervous and in awe of Federer's game, particularly his forehand.

Britton, to this point, has been far ahead of his time. He reached the final of the 2008 junior tournament here as a qualifier and back in May he became the youngest NCAA singles champion ever -- breaking a record set by John McEnroe, of all people -- as a freshman at Ole Miss.

Aside from a wonderful fourth game in the second set, in which he aced the Swiss champion three times, Britton seemed overwhelmed. But as the match progressed, he loosened up, and the level of his game improved. He actually had a lead in the second set and in the third. With Federer trying to get off the breezy court, Britton, 10 years his junior, hung with him.

[+] EnlargeDevin Britton
Al Bello/Getty ImagesWorld No. 1 Roger Federer wasn't very generous to young Devin Britton, who was playing his first career Grand Slam match.

It was 5-all in the third set when Federer finally had seen enough. He held serve easily and, with Britton trying to force a tiebreaker, applied the fatal pressure. Playing too fast, Britton went for two ill-advised drop shots and threw in a double fault on game point. On match point, Federer drew Britton in and hit a gorgeous curling forehand crosscourt winner.

Federer definitely felt Britton's pain. He told the story last week of his first encounter with greatness, when he played Andre Agassi at the age of 17 in his hometown of Basel, where he had once served as a ball boy. On Monday, he described what it was like to play Pete Sampras at Wimbledon at the age of 19.

"He did play, I think, really well," Federer said of Britton. "He had some very good spells. I had to make sure from my side that I stayed with him and came back, because I was down a break in the second and third sets."

Clearly, Britton has some game. Unlike the army of big baseliners emerging from Nick Bollettieri's Florida factory, he is a throwback, a serve-and-volley player who works his way forward whenever possible. Britton said the experience taught him he needs to become physically stronger and build a more forceful forehand and a bigger serve.

In his postmatch interview, Britton was marvelously self-deprecating and genuinely funny talking about his first turn on the major stage.

"His forehand is just crazy," Britton said. "It's so pretty. I tried to keep it away, but sometimes I just hit it there just to see it."

This drew laughter from the assembled media. Was there a time when he actually thought he might escape with that final set?

"Yeah," Britton said. "I thought that for 10, 15 seconds before he broke me at love the next game. You know it was fun for those 10, 15 seconds.

"It was probably the best seconds of my life."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.