The expected 2014 U.S. Open semifinal berth was slipping away from Roger Federer. Two sets and one hour of lackluster play. The Swiss Maestro battled himself as much as Gael Monfils. He barked at the chair umpire. His composure simmered beneath his determination to get back into the match.
He even stared at two match points, but he refused to be buried.
Four points later, he escaped a postmatch funeral and turned the match in his favor. The fifth set was more of a victory lap, and Federer marched on to Saturday’s semifinal.
To say that Federer won ugly may be understating his dire predicament. His serve was off, he pressed with impatient errors, and his opponent outclassed him with graceful movement and spectacular shots, staples that Federer has branded during his legendary career.
Just how did he hang in there and win? What does this mean for his chances against Marin Cilic and to play on in Monday’s final for a shot at his record-extending 18th Grand Slam title?
Composure. Patience. Endurance.
Federer alluded to all of this in his on-court interview with Brad Gilbert, via AP World Tour:
I served well and stayed in the match and somehow turned it around. I felt great in the fifth, though. I was really starting to play better and better as the match went on, and that’s a great feeling.
Going forward, Federer will need to pack his gear bag with composure to augment his aging skills and championship experience.
The Agony of Painful Defeats
Maybe the tennis gods figured Federer was due. Big matches and close defeats had haunted Federer more than a few times in the last five years.
There was the 2009 U.S. Open final defeat to young Juan Martin del Potro. Federer’s five-year dominance was already meeting challenges from rivals Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and other rising stars, and he didn’t like that one bit. He got angry at the chair umpire when Del Potro took his time to call for a successful replay challenge.
A little more composure and less hubris in trying to outgun Del Potro may have cost him that title. By the fifth set, he had lost his energy and the match, bowing out 6-2 in the clincher.
There was the 2011 U.S. Open semifinal defeat to Djokovic when Federer could not serve out two match points. Was he unnerved by the hot Serbian’s terrific service returns? Federer limped along tentatively, perhaps unable to defeat the mental barbs of lost victory as Djokovic sprinted by to break the tape.
Even with Federer’s successful comeback from injuries and disappointments in 2013, he has dropped several big-match leads in 2014:
He watched Djokovic celebrate the Indian Wells title after a spirited tussle.
He couldn’t put away Stanislas Wawrinka for the Monte Carlo championship.
Wimbledon proved to be an epic heartbreak. He was jilted by his most faithful venue as Djokovic once again took the invitations, bouquet and unopened gifts.
And maybe the Canada Open was the final straw as he turned out a low-quality performance in getting overpowered by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Mere mortals might have been discouraged with far less success and agony, a bittersweet taste that few could stomach, let alone reset for another attempt.
But champions like Federer never die. They always have something left.
How to Win Two Big Matches
There have rightfully been enough questions about Federer’s stamina and energy in trying to duel younger stars, as if they were lined up to tag in and pile up on the aging champion.
Federer not only broke through this assault, but did so impressively with his Masters title at Cincinnati’s Southern & Western Open. It was as much testament to his patience and composure in sticking with his game.
It may have tipped the balance to winning the 2014 U.S. Open.
There’s no question that his semifinal opponent Marin Cilic has the kind of power to trouble Federer. He was one of our “Under-the-Radar Players" and a dangerous talent looking for his own breakthrough.
Federer will need to draw on his lesson from the Monfils match: If you try to outhit him, you may not find the court. Stay within your plan of patient setup shots, effective slice and timely pressure when the percentages are there. Don’t get locked into a power duel.
The key to his game, one point at a time, is patience and aggressive control. Against Monfils, Federer sometimes found himself out of position at the net, but in the end he snagged 53 of 74 points at the mid-point barrier.
He understands the price for hard-fought victories, with nearly 1000 wins in his decorated career, but many of these triumphs are forged with a recipe of hard work and patient expertise. It takes time to bake a great batch of croissants.
How much is left in Federer’s drive for the U.S. Open title? Did the five-set Monfils victory deplete him or will it galvanize his efforts to overcome Cilic and compete in Monday’s final?
Despite his share of tough defeats, Federer is resilient, ready to compete for more majors and with the remarkable ability to forget about the past and seize the next match.
As long as his talent will allow him to bid for titles, Federer will not be cheated. He’s seen it all, won it all and has the mind and composure to play all the way through a championship.
One point at a time takes composure. The ability to navigate through frustration takes even greater composure. Nobody knows this more than Federer.