The Anxiety of Success: Federer's Road to the U.S. Open

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The Anxiety of Success:  Federer's Road to the U.S. Open
(Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Our modern version of the Farmer's Almanac tells me the U.S. Open looms ahead; my stint in 115 Fahrenheit Phoenix and the homey humidity of Boston reminds me that the dog days of August are just around the corner.  Change happens so rapidly now that who can foretell the results in Flushing Meadow? 

By mid-February just six months ago people openly wondered if Federer would ever win another tournament, much less a major, much less defeat his arch-rival Nadal.  Many thought the Swiss suddenly emotionally unhinged, and was no longer invincible in the eyes of his peers, an invincibility that John McEnroe once said (I paraphrase) was worth a one set handicap. 

Fast forward to late May.  Rafa falls to Soderling, and the world turned.  Federer guts out several tough matches and gets the French monkey off his back.  He then barely ekes out his historic 15th at Wimbledon, featuring a flick of the wrist backhand half volley in the second set tiebreaker that will go down as one of the 10 most improbable and important shots hit in the history of the sport. 

So where are we now?  Rafa waits to return from enforced rest, probably frustrated at what he missed, the loss of number one ranking, and anxious about the severity of the hard court summer.  He probably also feels extra motivation: we shouldn't forget that the Open is the only major he has yet to win, that which would place him in the pantheon of Budge, Perry, Laver, Emerson, Aggassi, and Federer. 

As well for purists, the Open's hardness of court (as opposed to Australia's softer surface) represents a four-surface slam for the ages, one that only Aggassi and Federer can claim.  The only question for Rafa will be whether his health, confidence, and performance will match his desire to prove his doubters wrong. 

Federer on the other hand seems to be on a roll.  But much can happen to him.  God willing his wife and new baby will be well, providing him with the positive karma that only that sort of awesome rite of passage can bring.  He will either be extra-rested from missing some tournament time or a bit rusty—who's to say? 

And there's still the Nadal factor.  The Nadal in the head of Federer factor.  It had to annoy Federer at least a little that so many questions in Paris and London featured some version of "does it feel as good to win here knowing that you faced myriad others but not your nemesis?"

In other words, should we asterisk this win?  It's almost akin to pre-Open era when the best couldn't always face each other.  Every amateur win was a bit tainted. 

Laver won the Slam in '62 without facing his chief rivals like Rosewall and Hoad, and he himself virtually asterisked his triumph when he noted (with his characteristic modesty) that he didn't think he was the world's greatest player because he hadn't faced his top rivals.

It is hard to imagine that Nadal is out of Federer's head.  Ironically, the more he beats everyone else the more it reinforces the singularity of his ill-fated rivalry with Rafa.  Federer's astounding six year record (excluding '03) would have been that much greater without Nadal.  Reaching 15 majors changes Nadal's ability to beat Federer, and to beat him mentally not a whit, at least not yet on the court.

Why is that?  Some of it is strategy.  Rafa recognized he had to grow his game or remain an incredible but limited baseliner, especially off the clay. So he improved his serve and volley, and has become generally more creative.  Federer, by contrast, is Swiss to the bone: more conservative about changing his game, right down to finding a coach.

But that's not all that accounts for Nadal's success against Federer.  Some of it is matchup stuff.  Rafa's heavy, high forehand to Federer's backhand is the most obvious. 

Some of it is tactics: Federer's inconsistent aggressiveness in terms of serving and volleying, or chipping and charging Nadal's second serve. 

Some of it is the distortion of the tennis calendar: the fact that they play so often on Nadal's beloved clay (on which he's 9-2 vs. Federer) and almost never on Federer's gorgeous grass.  But at some level we have to ask if by now the matchup is mental;  if Federer feels like the real and presumptive king against everyone else except Nadal. 

That is the excitement awaiting us in Queens.  Each of these players has something to prove, and something to gain.  I don't know who has the edge, because the relative advantages are apples and oranges. 

The fast surface favors the Swiss; the mental edge lies with the Spaniard.  To me the inner mountain seems most imposing.  Federer's historic Paris and London just may make him that much more anxious about proving his mettle against Rafa. 

He still needs to prove to himself, and to the rest of us, that the French and Wimbledon double doesn't deserve a virtual asterisk.  That may prove a heavy burden to bear.

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