As the tennis telescope turns towards Flushing Meadow at the end of August, the world sits comfortably on its axis, and turns at its designated 24 hours a day. Roger Federer is No. 1 in the world, holds the Wimbledon title, and has broken Pete Sampras’ grip on the Grand Slam record.
Rewind 12 months and this was precisely the scenario that had been predicted for last year’s US Open. Except that, by August 2008, Federer had lost his No. 1 ranking, lost his Wimbledon title and had many commentators doubting whether he would ever reach that elusive 14th Grand Slam. The earth had, for tennis aficionados, tilted out of true.
Federer’s losses had begun, unexpectedly, at the very start of 2008, the first surprise being his capitulation of the Australian title. A subsequent diagnosis of glandular fever explained the result but did not silence the few who had begun to question his hunger.
While Federer continued with the required tournaments and ATP commitments, he was clearly not himself. Rafael Nadal was eating away at his ranking points, Novak Djokovic was celebrating his first Slam victory and further Masters success. Other rising stars were also picking Federer off—not least Andy Murray.
So the year went on, with a shocking defeat at the hands of Nadal in Paris, and a heartbreaking loss to the same adversary at Wimbledon. Most ominously, he made early exits from the key hard-court Masters leading into Flushing Meadow.
So the pressure could not have been higher nor the expectations lower for the four-time U.S. champion’s bid to equal the 80-year-old record of Bill Tilden.
2008, though, had one extra element. It was Olympic year and Federer, with compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka, won a hugely emotional doubles gold. It turned out to be a very significant gold, too, for it seemed to ignite a fire that revitalised the Federer confidence.
That, and the gradual release from the grip of glandular fever, saw him work his way through some tough early rounds once the Open started. In particular, he managed to overcome an on-fire Igor Andreev in five-sets, confirming that he had, once more, the physical and mental reserves to stay the distance.
Federer’s dismissal of Djokovic in the semi-final was achieved with some of his best shot-making of the season—his trademark combination of power, touch, timing and tactics was back.
The meeting with Andy Murray in the final was a tantalising prospect. The vastly improved British man was bidding for his first Grand Slam. He made no secret of the fact that he loved New York, and that he would particularly love this title. While Federer had bombed out just weeks before in Cincinnati, Murray had won the title, so knew he was peaking on his favorite surface at the right time.
There was some added spice to liven the taste buds. Murray was, and indeed continues to be, one of very few players on tour with a winning record against Federer. Murray had even beaten Federer at one of his favourite tournaments, his training base in Dubai. Coming back to the tour from a six-week medical lay-off, Federer was not impressed by the style of Murray’s win. It was a criticism that pricked Murray, and that he revisited in subsequent interviews.
Murray had earned his tilt at the title by beating Nadal in a dramatic semi-final that spread across two days and two courts. He had barely a day to recover from his four-set marathon, while Federer enjoyed a full two.
But if Federer had been superb in beating Djokovic, Murray had been equally impressive in taking a two set lead on day one and then turning the tide against a resurgent Nadal after the overnight rain delay. He was certainly in bullish form ahead of the final: “I played well enough to beat the No. 1 player in the world over two days, and I’ve beaten Roger in the past.”
He hadn’t banked on meeting a Federer who had rediscovered his sparkling, dominant form.
From the moment Federer strode onto court, he looked a winner. Confident, purposeful, relaxed, moving even in warm-up like mercury—liquid, sinuous, flashing across the blue surface. His tennis burned flame-hot, the colour of the shirt he wore.
The onslaught began at once. Federer exuded a kind of prancing energy, weight forward, on his toes, posture urgent, even when he missed a shot. His tactics were clearly to attack, and he did so with devastating backhands, showcase forehands, and aggressive forays to net—44 of them.
He constructed points like a chess player. A sliced backhand would be followed by a drive backhand, then a forehand down the line, followed by a slow, floating slice deep to the baseline corner before unleashing a whipped forehand at twice the pace.
The attack began on Murray’s very first service game, and the Scot, so upbeat before the match, was immediately caught off guard. One was reminded of the Federer criticism, back in Dubai, about staying too far back.
By 4-2 up, Federer was striking balls with abandon from and into all parts of the court, invariably airborne in some kind of balletic jette. Within 26 minutes, the set was over, 6-2.
The second set gave Murray a chance to find his range. Though Federer broke his first service game, Murray broke back equally spectacularly.
By 2-2, the set was evenly balanced, with both men attacking, and both making a few errors: the windy conditions caused a number of mistimed strikes on both sides.
The fifth game turned out to be one of the pivotal moments of the match. Federer was serving and continued his attack on every shot, but in this particular game he pushed several drives just long, and found himself at 0-40.
He pulled back to 30-40 with forehands that just caught the base line. On the third break point, there were gasps mid-point when Federer again skimmed the line, and followed up with a winning volley. There was no call, and the game was held. Had Murray challenged, the Federer drive would be shown long and Murray would have won the break. As it was, the moment had passed.
Federer later identified that as his trigger to play more freely. He clearly hadn’t noticed the first set!
So despite some spirited and spasmodically stunning tennis from Murray, he could not get the upper hand. At 5-6 down, his serve was subjected to one of the finest sequences of points ever caught on film, as Federer launched a blistering attack. Three points were taken with smashes and the fourth with a chased down running forehand pass.
The debate about whether fatigue from his semi match caught up with Murray in the third and final set will probably continue for some years yet. It would be as easy, though, to attribute the 5-0 scoreline to flawless tennis from Federer. He may even have closed the match out at 6-0 had he not been so close to imploding with intensity. Finally, though, with another sequence of three smashes, he took the set 6-2.
Until the French Open this year, it’s hard to recall a more exultant Federer. The U.S. victory, after such a tormenting year, meant the world.
Murray, who had been so bullish at the outset was sheepish, though gracious, in defeat: “Came up against, in my opinion, the best player ever to play. He definitely set the record straight today.”
The earth’s axis was, for a while at least, back in alignment.
Murray went on to beat Federer in Madrid, and then again in a stunning battle at the Master’s Cup in Shanghai. Both matches were the best of three sets, and in both Federer carried a back injury.
In the early months of 2009, Murray beat Federer on hard courts in Doha and in Indian Wells. Again, these were best-of-three matches, with Federer fighting back from injury layoffs.
By the time they arrive in New York this year, they may well have faced each other again. This time, Murray is more fit and more confident than ever, and will almost certainly have developed new tactics.
Federer, though, unlike last year, will go into the competition as the top-performing, top-ranked player in the world. He also relishes the physical intensity of the Grand Slam format.
He may now have that Sampras record, but he would love to crown his year with one more record: the only man to win six consecutive U.S. titles.