PARIS: Wimbledon champion Roger Federer, playing at half pace to nurse his bad back, eased into the last 16 of the Paris Masters yesterday by beating Thierry Ascione 7-6, 6-1.
Another French qualifier, Gregory Carraz, upset 11th seed Sjeng Schalken 6-4, 2-6, 6-3.
Federer, in a three-way tussle with world number one Juan Carlos Ferrero and Andy Roddick to finish top of the end-year rankings, spent the first set testing out his back which he injured during the Swiss Indoors last week.
But once he realised it would give him few problems, the Swiss third seed took firm control of the second set as Ascione crumbled.
“I didn't practice for four days and I wasn't sure I was going to make it. I couldn't force it too much today ... I kept the points short and didn't use up too much energy,” he said.
“Everything went better in the second set, particularly my service and return, and I can play full out for the rest of the tournament.”
Ascione, ranked 106th in the world, hit a stream of winners from the baseline but the 22-year-old was unable to maintain the momentum in the first-set tiebreak and let the opportunity slip away.
Three netted Federer volleys gave Ascione a 5-4 lead in the tiebreak. Yet three points later, after a Federer ace and two mistakes by the home favourite, the set was gone.
Federer broke service in the second game of the second set and ran away with the match.
He injured his back before a second round defeat by Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic in Basel.
Two of the most improved players of 2003, Rainer Schuettler and Guillermo Coria, joined Federer in the last 16.
Fifth seed Schuettler muddled past American James Blake 4-6, 6-2, 6-3.
Argentina's Coria, fresh from winning the Swiss title last weekend, beat Spain's Feliciano Lopez 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.
Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden benefited from the withdrawal of sixth seed David Nalbandian to oust the Argentine's replacement, lucky loser Nicolas Lapentti, 6-4, 6-1.
Nalbandian, who had a bye in the opening round, withdrew shortly before the second-round match with a wrist injury.
The Argentine must now wait until the end of this week to see if he has qualified for the season-ending eight-man Masters Cup in Houston.
Nalbandian, who had also pulled out of the Swiss Indoor final because of his damaged tendon, is in eighth position but could be overtaken by Wimbledon finalist Mark Philippoussis of Australia, France's Sebastien Grosjean or Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand in the ATP Champions' Race by Sunday.
Spain's Felix Mantilla became the first seed to be ousted, the 15th seed losing 7-5, 7-6 to Andrei Pavel. The Romanian next plays fourth seed Coria.
Like Coria, Schuettler has already booked his spot in Houston next month but he struggled in the first set against Blake, who had numerous chances to break the German's serve but took only two.
The American broke for 5-4 and won the set with an ace, before losing the first four games of the second while trying, and failing, to hit the cover off the balls.
In a match of mediocre quality and 12 breaks of service, there were then four successive breaks before Schuettler won it. He eased through the third to reach a last 16 match against 10th seed Nicolas Massu of Chile.
“That match was not good enough to write a book about,” Schuettler said.
Bjorkman is trying to keep alive Sweden's record of having had a men's singles champion every year since 1974. He is also hoping to partner Todd Woodbridge to the Australian's 79th doubles title, an ATP tour record. – Reuters