In the Zone with Roger Federer: Part One

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In the Zone with Roger Federer: Part One
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

2009 Australian Open Quarterfinal: Federer vs. Juan Martin Del Potro

When Roger Federer and Juan Martin Del Potro took to the court in Melbourne in the opening month of 2009, the weight of certainty to uncertainty over the outcome was finely balanced.

There were many things that were certain about Del Potro. He came into the Australian Open with a win just the week before, in Auckland. His victims there included Sam Querrey and Robin Soderling; no slouches on hard courts.

Between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2008, Del Potro had won four straight tournaments: Stuttgart, Kitzbuhel, Los Angeles, and Washington.

In the 12 months leading up to the Australian Open, his ranking had rocketed from 53 to six. And commensurate with his new-found ranking, he had made steady progress towards this quarterfinal showdown. Del Potro was young, he was big, and he was improving all the time.

Weighted against him, however, was a 3-0 head-to-head in his opponent’s favor.

Then there was the Federer balance sheet.

A fortnight before, he had lost to Andy Murray in the Doha semifinals. It was an inauspicious return to the Tour after an illness-tainted 2008. The man who had only been beaten 18 times in the previous three years put together lost 15 matches in a single year. The last two of those losses were at the round-robin stage of the year-end Masters Cup, beaten by Murray, Gilles Simon, and a crippling back.

More immediately, and of most concern, was Federer’s near loss in the previous round at Melbourne, to Tomas Berdych.

There were, this being the man who had racked up 237 consecutive weeks as world No. 1, a few ingots of gold to add to his side of the scales.

This was Federer's 23rd Grand Slam quarterfinal and his 19th in a row. The last time Federer had lost before the semifinals in any Slam was at Roland Garros in 2004. And of course, there was that 3-0 record over his opponent.

Their head-to-head may have meant little to Federer, but the record of his opponent weighed on Del Petro’s mind: “I will play the best player ever. I will just have to do my best to beat him.”

The match began normally enough, with holds of serve and the odd error off the ground. The fourth game, though, was a tussle. They played several deuces, but Federer hustled and sparkled, already showing off a fluid backhand, vicious forehand, and an eagerness to attack the net. He broke serve for the first time, which was enough to seal a fast-paced 6-3 set.

Federer was dominating the Del Potro’s power play with consummate ease. His movement was fast and assured, his footwork crisp, and his aggressive serve-and-volley tactics perfectly executed. But Del Potro had seen nothing yet.

In set two, Federer appeared to switch from everyday champion to once-in-a-lifetime champion. His racket was discarded in favor of a poison-tipped rapier, the shoes sprouted wings, and the tactical brain was swapped for a super-computer.

He broke the very first game, and to love, with a sequence of shots that encapsulated the rapid direction this match was to take.

Federer broke a second time, albeit with slightly less ease. Everything is relative, and although Del Potro scored a couple of aces and took the game to deuce, Federer stayed in command.

His tactics were clear. Federer aimed to move the bigger man back and forward, make him play low balls, and take time away from him by rushing the net.

The tactics worked a treat, and the execution was deadly. Backhands were sliced wide and acutely angled. Drop shots were stroked over the net from the back and the front of the court. Volleys were taken early and hit into open space. It was easy to see what Federer has been practising over the winter break.

In the blink of an eye, the second set was gone to love, and Del Potro looked stunned. Where had the fragile, vulnerable Federer of a dozen newspaper reports gone? Who had slipped on the dazzling blue invincibility cloak between that fourth-round match and this moonlit assault?

By the third set, Federer had taken on the characteristics of a killer whale, one of those glorious but remorseless creatures that catches its prey in the shallows and tosses it from wave to wave in preparation for the final kill.

Del Potro swam for his life, hitting harder and harder shots, but was broken immediately to love. In one desperate attempt to retrieve a skimming angled slice, Del Potro’s shot was called “not up” and Federer—relaxed to the point of needing a feather pillow—faked a smash before nodding it over with his head. A spine-tingling message.

By the fourth game, Del Potro had won just three points. The more he pushed, the worse he did.

Federer's 11th and 12th aces took him to 40-0, 5-0. One match point was saved, the next was not. The three sets had taken just 80 minutes, and Federer, appropriately, showed a certain reticence in celebrating his progress to a 19th consecutive Grand Slam semifinal.

The bald statistics of the match were eloquent enough: an average first serve rate of 70 percent; 12 aces; nine unforced errors, just three in the last two sets together; and 38 winners (that’s almost two outright winners every game).

But it was the style in which those statistics stacked up that confirmed most eloquently that Federer was “in the zone.” He appeared so completely centred, so oblivious to his surroundings, so quiet and calm, that a bomb might have gone off and he would have continued his near-faultless tennis. Few fist-pumps, not a sound, complete focus. The brilliance just poured from his racket.

The most jaded of critics would have been content with the stream of individual winners: the off backhand into the far corner to win the first game; or the cross-court angled backhand whip in the fifth game; or the serve followed by a soft stop volley in the 11th game; or, two games later, Federer cross-stepping into position to strike his signature forehand in mid air.

However, it was the numerous sequences of perfect shots that showed how completely “zoned” Federer was.

In the first point of the eighth game, Federer played four successive backhands: the first a blocked return to Del Potro’s feet; the second a subtle slice angled just across the net; the third a long cross-court slice to the far corner; the last a searing top spin drive deep down the line.

Then there was a sequence of four points that broke Del Potro to love in the first game of the second set, the last a soft caress of a forehand volley from his feet for an outright winner, nonchalant as a falling leaf.

This unrelenting pressure is what pierced Del Potro’s armoury like arrows through a pumpkin.

Federer’s words after the match confirmed this state of mind. “Things went much better than I expected…I kind of felt good from the start. The longer the match went, the more he struggled and the better I got.”

Now return briefly to those scales, and the checks and balances that can shift uncertainty to certainty. There was one additional ingot in Federer’s dish that evening.

What no-one else knew until many weeks later was that Federer’s wife-to-be was pregnant. The couple, it transpired, received the news that they were to have twins just before he played that quarterfinal. Only later did Federer reveal his apprehension at how this news might affect his game that day. He soon knew. “It was like, O.K., seems like it’s not affecting me. That was a good start.”

The end, though—losing a highly-charged final to Nadal—was not quite so good.

Federer would go on, in Madrid, to beat Del Potro in straight sets again, and then to win his first major title of the year. The French Open brought them together again, and Del Potro continued to grow in confidence and stature. That contest went to five gruelling sets and, although Federer won it, the gauntlet had been thrown down.

By the U.S. Open final, the scales had tilted Del Potro’s way, and Federer retreated to the bosom of his new family, carrying his first loss to the big man. The balance had shifted, for the time being at least. Those twins had had their effect after all!

But Del Potro must beware. It is only a matter of time until Federer finds his familiar “zone.” If it lasts an entire match, as it did on that Melbourne night, say your prayers, because good tennis won’t be enough!

 

Check out the previous article in this series on Pete Sampras by Rob York.

And if you have five minutes to spare, watch and enjoy some highlights of Federer’s performance here .

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