Fortnights at the majors are always compelling for those who assiduously follow the game of tennis. In these two week festivals, history of a high order is made, landmark triumphs recorded, hearts often broken, and the careers of those who play the sport for a living sweepingly altered by the chain of events at these Grand Slam tournaments. The sport’s towering players direct everything they do toward making an impact at the four majors, knowing that these showcase stages will make or break them forever, realizing that reputations are established and enlarged when big and timely victories are recorded, wanting to make certain that no stone is left unturned in pursuit of their highest and widest ambitions.
And so Roger Federer is right where he wants to be, celebrating his third tournament victory of 2014, knowing he is thoroughly prepared for the upcoming U.S. Open, feeling as if he is ready to release his best tennis of the season at the last of the four majors in New York. Federer secured the Western & Southern Open crown in Cincinnati, taking that title for the sixth time, winning his first Masters 1000 championship in two years. The 33-year-old Swiss garnered a third singles title of 2014 in his eighth final round appearance, notching an 80th career singles tournament victory, raising his record over the industrious Spaniard David Ferrer to 16-0 with a 6-3, 1-6, 6-2 win. Not only had Federer lost five of his seven final round clashes this year, but he had also been beaten in nine of his previous twelve title round duels. That is why his Cincinnati triumph is one he will value highly; all great champions want to do their finest work on Sunday afternoons when trophies are on the line.
On top of that, Federer surely wanted to demonstrate his superiority on the eve of a crucial occasion. The two titles he had taken earlier this year were not of the same caliber as this latest triumph. He won an ATP World Tour 500 title in Dubai, eclipsing both Novak Djokovic and Tomas Berdych in the last two rounds. His second title run was in Halle on the grass, and that is an ATP World Tour 250 event. Those triumphs still mattered considerably to Federer, and yet he fully realizes that he needed to record a tournament win in a larger setting with higher stakes. Federer may not have been in peak form during the week, understandably so in light of the hard work he put in the previous week at Toronto. But it was a tribute to his superb physical conditioning and his immense discipline and willpower that he could come off a distressing final round loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Canada, take two days off, and then record five consecutive match victories in faster Cincinnati conditions without another day off. He played some awfully good tennis.
Confronting Ferrer was an ideal way for Federer to conclude an arduous fortnight because he has owned the Spaniard across their careers. Federer seemed sharp, eager and purposeful as he started the final with Ferrer. He had the upper hand early. Federer held at 15 in the opening game with an ace out wide in the deuce court and had 0-30 on Ferrer’s serve in the second game before the Spaniard found his range off the ground, and zeroed in on the Federer backhand to extract errors. Ferrer swept four points in a row for 1-1, but Federer maintained his rhythm on serve, holding at 15 for 2-1 with a wide serve setting up a forehand approach that led to a netted backhand passing shot from Ferrer.
Both players were comfortable now, with Federer attacking judiciously, volleying crisply, and executing aggressively off the ground while Ferrer countered with good control off both sides, sound ball striking and unrelenting depth and accuracy on his shots. Federer came forward unhesitatingly; Ferrer controlled matters as much as possible from the backcourt. Both men were landing punches in different ways. The tennis was first rate on both sides of the net.
Until Ferrer served at 3-4, neither man had ceded much ground on serve. Federer had taken 16 of 20 points on his delivery and Ferrer had won 12 of 16. But then Federer made his move in the eighth game as Ferrer suddenly became apprehensive. The Spaniard missed an inside out forehand that was unprovoked, and then double faulted for 0-30. He rallied to 30-30, but was pressured into an error off the forehand. At 30-40, Ferrer served another double fault, allowing Federer to advance to 5-3.
But Federer was hard pressed to hold when he served for the set in the ninth game. Federer drifted to 0-40 as Ferrer demonstrated for the first time why he is among the three or four best returners in tennis. He stabbed at a scorching forehand approach from Federer and produced a winning forehand lob for 0-15, connected with a scintillating backhand passing shot down the line for 0-30, and lured Federer into a running forehand error. Federer had not missed a first serve on those three points. It was 0-40, and the Spaniard had triple break point to get back on serve. Here Federer unmistakably displayed his poise.
The Swiss punched an authoritative forehand volley into the clear, forced Ferrer into a backhand mistake, and then sent a forehand inside in approach to the Ferrer forehand. Federer easily made another forehand volley winner to make it deuce. Ferrer earned a fourth break point that Federer erased with an excellent body serve. From deuce, Federer collected two points in a row, sealing the set with a solid low volley that forced Ferrer to miss an awkward backhand passing shot. Federer won the set 6-3. He seemed set to move into another gear from there, ready to pull away permanently from Ferrer.
That almost happened, but not quite. In the opening game of the second set, Ferrer found himself under constant duress. Four times he was down break point, but he fended all of them off with tenacity and spunk. On the first, his deep second serve elicited a topspin backhand return that went long. He fought off the second with an acutely angled inside out forehand that Federer could not handle on the backhand slice. When Federer got to break point for the third time, Ferrer sent a first serve into the body on the backhand side that skidded off the line and left the Swiss helpless. With Federer at break point for the fourth time, Ferrer flattened out a crosscourt forehand that drew an error from his opponent.
After six deuces, Ferrer held on steadfastly for 1-0, preventing Federer from perhaps running away with the match. Instead, Ferrer took utter control of the second set. After Federer rallied again from 0-40 to game point in the second game, Ferrer stood his ground with temerity. Consecutive forehand winners gave the Spaniard a fourth break point, and he converted, driving an inside out forehand with enough pace to induce a backhand slice error from Federer. Ferrer had moved to 2-0 and he held at 15 for 3-0. Federer was only down one break at that stage, but he seemed to have lost more conviction than that. He did not miss a first serve in the fourth game, but Ferrer seemed to read everything impeccably. He broke at 15 for 4-0 as the Swiss served-and-volleyed point after point. Ferrer benefitted from a miss-hit backhand return winner past a charging Federer for 15-40, and then made a low return down the middle that Federer netted on a backhand half volley drop shot attempt.
Ferrer was playing some astutely aggressive tennis and he was hardly making a mistake. On his way to 5-0, Ferrer won 15 of 17 points as Federer seemed detached and a bit dazed. Serving in the sixth game, Federer was twice down set point. He daringly served-and-volleyed down the T on second serve to save the first, placing his delivery on the line, setting up a backhand drop volley winner. A first serve down the T from Federer was unmanageable for Ferrer on the second. Federer held on for 1-5, avoiding the loss of a love set, giving himself a brighter outlook for the challenge ahead. Ferrer saved a break point and held on to win the set 6-1, but Federer had the advantage of serving first in the final set.
He served his first double fault for 30-30, but an ace down the T and a service winner out wide lifted the Swiss to 1-0, and seemed to give him a substantial boost. Ferrer held for 1-1 with an ace, but from that juncture on he was ill at ease as Federer opened up his wings and played an uninhibited brand of attacking tennis. In the third game, Federer did not miss a first serve in a love hold that included a service winner, an overhead into the clear, and a forehand volley winner. Ferrer knew he was up against a surging opponent who no longer believed he could lose. Federer rolled to 15-40 in the fourth game. Ferrer saved one break point, but Federer would not let him escape on the second. The Swiss laced a forehand inside in behind Ferrer, and moved forward for a handsome forehand drop shot winner.
It was 3-1 for Federer, who was rapidly moving beyond Ferrer’s reach. Federer missed only one first serve in the fifth game, holding at 15 with an ace, two service winners and a forehand volley winner into a vacant court. He was ahead 4-1. Ferrer was behind break point no less than four times in the sixth game, but he revealed his finest qualities as a competitor, fending them all off with a body serve that was too good, an ace, an overhead winner, and one overcooked forehand from Federer. Obstinately, Ferrer held for 2-4, remaining only one break down.
Federer remained imperturbable. He held commandingly at love for 5-2, closing out that impressive game with consecutive aces, and Ferrer had run out of emotional energy. Federer broke him at 15 to wrap up the victory 6-3, 1-6, 6-2. He had secured 16 of 19 points on serve in the final set and had kept 84% of his first serves in. With Federer striking the ball so cleanly and precisely, Ferrer had no chance down the stretch. Federer had cast aside his second set insecurities, playing superbly at the end, closing out the account very much on his own terms.
In the semifinals, Federer took on world No. 6 Milos Raonic, fresh from a 6-1, 6-0 execution of a moody and perplexing Fabio Fognini. Raonic had lost to Federer in a disappointing straight set Wimbledon semifinal match, failing to impose himself in any way on that disconcerting Friday afternoon. The Canadian sorely wanted a chance to redeem himself, but he was even more fraught with nerves this time than he was on the fabled Centre Court. Federer and Raonic took the court for their confrontation more than an hour late after a staggering battle won by Ana Ivanovic over Maria Sharapova, and clearly the Swiss handled the delay much better than did his adversary.
Raonic was wound up entirely too tight. He started the match with almost palpable tension, and Federer could sense it. This was déjà vu all over again, eerily reminiscent of their Wimbledon encounter. On that occasion, Raonic lost serve in the opening game of the match after double faulting at 30-30 and never really recovered. This time around, after Federer held at love in the opening game, Raonic served a couple of thunderbolts that Federer could not return, and the Canadian led 30-0 in the second game. But he made a sloppy mistake off the backhand for 30-15 before Federer caught him off guard with a delayed approach. At 30-30, Raonic double faulted, and then sent a forehand approach long off Federer’s standard short, low chipped backhand return. Federer had the immediate break for 2-0, and Raonic was shell shocked. In the opening set, Federer did not drop a single point on serve, winning all 16 points on his delivery. He added another break in the eighth game, and once more Raonic squandered a lead. This time he was ahead 40-15 and had four game points but he lost that game with a double fault. Set to Federer, 6-2.
In the second set, Raonic returned decidedly better, but to no avail. He had a break point in the opening game but netted a running forehand. Raonic stayed with Federer until 3-4, and then had a 40-0 lead, but he was broken again as Federer got him again with the low backhand chipped return. Federer held on to close out a 6-2, 6-3 victory. Federer was first rate, attacking diligently, breaking down the Raonic backhand, applying pressure persistently throughout the contest. But Raonic was abysmal. One of the game’s greatest servers looked inexplicably inept in that department. He had no imagination. He served far too often to the backhand. He wasted leads in all three service games that he lost. He was abysmal.
Meanwhile, Federer met Andy Murray in the quarterfinals in a critical match for the British player. Murray had saved two match points against John Isner in the previous round, and he sorely wanted to make a big run in Cincinnati to set the stage for a serious charge at the U.S. Open. But Murray served poorly the whole match and he did not come out of the gates with enough intensity, while Federer was primed for the appointment.
Federer was the decidedly better player in the opening set. He had two break points in the first game and four more in the third, but Murray held on. Federer was getting a lot of returns back into play and Murray was predictable with his location. Federer broke for 3-2, saved break points with clutch serving in his next two service games and then broke Murray again to wrap up the set, 6-3.
In the second set, Murray took four games in a row to establish a 4-1, two service break lead. A third set seemed inevitable. Federer had gone three sets in his first two matches with Vasek Pospisil and Gael Monfils, and the last thing he needed or wanted was to have that happen again. Somehow, with a lot of help from Murray, Federer escaped. Murray was broken in a timid game for 4-2 before Federer held easily in the seventh game. At 4-3, 15-30, Murray missed wildly with an inside out forehand and then double faulted long. Federer was back to 4-4. Murray was surely incensed.
After Federer held for 5-4, Murray managed to get back to 5-5, but he did not reach a tie-break. Serving at 5-6, Murray built a 30-0 lead but Federer eventually broke on another inexcusable forehand error from his adversary, and the stylish Swiss had the victory 6-3, 7-5. Murray had only himself to blame for not prevailing in the second set.
That second set with Murray was the pivotal moment of a long week for Federer. He had played five hard matches in Canada, losing the final there to Tsonga. In Cincinnati, he had been given those tough matches by Pospisil and Monfils. Murray had won six of seven career clashes with Federer that had gone into a decisive final set, but he wasted his opportunity to prolong this battle and make it more physical. Seldom at his level do top players allow two service break leads to get away in a set, but in this case Murray did. That transgression could have lasting implications for a player who has not done himself justice all year long.
Be that as it may, the U.S. Open is now around the corner. Many will pick Federer to win his first crown in New York since 2008. He is indeed on a very good run. He has made the finals of his last four tournaments. He had the best pre-U.S. Open hard court season of anyone. He clearly will be among the elite at the Open and is one of very few men who have a genuine chance to capture the last major championship of 2014. Novak Djokovic failed to reach the quarterfinals of either Toronto or Cincinnati. Since 2007, Djokovic had always been at least a semifinalist in one of those two Masters 1000 events. He lost badly to Tsonga in Toronto, and then Tommy Robredo ousted the Serbian in Cincinnati. Both were round of 16 appointments.
I still believe he is the best hard court player in tennis, and I make him the favorite to win the U.S. Open. The best of five set format plays to his advantage. He can recover his form during the first week. Having said that, I believe Federer’s summer run was remarkable. If he can navigate the early rounds with as little physical stress as possible, if his draw is kind and his fortune is good, he could be right in the thick of things at the end. He is going forward now with supreme conviction—behind his serve and some magnificent approach shots. The reshaping of his game is fascinating.
Is it the influence of Stefan Edberg? I believe many people are lauding Edberg excessively. That is no knock on the Swede, who is probably offering sensible and sound advice. But the fundamental point is this: Federer is fully buying into the notion now of attacking with regularity. Surely Paul Annacone was telling him many of the same things as Edberg, but no matter how clearly he heard the message, Federer was not ready to listen and go down that path at that time. In the end it is up to Federer to play the way he wants. At 33, he seems to realize at last that he has to get to the net with much more frequency and without hesitation. Roger Federer is one remarkable individual, a 33-year-old champion who sometimes seems five years younger, and a man who remains as driven as ever to secure big prizes. Win or lose, he will surely be the most arresting player at this U.S. Open.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.
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The 2007 French Open Doubles Champion reported from London during his quest for back to back slams.
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