11/6/2011 6:00:00 PM
by Steve Flink
Once upon a time, not very long ago, the news that Roger Federer had collected another tournament trophy would have been taken entirely for granted. When the Swiss Maestro was the dominant force in the game of tennis, he seemed to treat every event he played as if it meant the world to him. He seldom let his guard down, always seemed to lift his game and psyche to the required level, and his triumphs in events of lesser stature laid the groundwork in many ways for the victories he recorded on the world’s premier stages. Consider what Federer did in the most sterling stretch of his career from 2004-2007. He won eleven singles titles in 2004, took eleven more in 2005, secured 12 crowns in 2006, and added eight more championships in 2007. Four years, 42 tournament wins, eleven majors, utter control of the sport he had mastered. In those four seasons, he lost 24 matches. That was Roger Federer when he expected to win just about any tournament he entered.
But while Federer remains one of the most formidable competitors in the game, his numbers have diminished in recent years. In 2008, he won only four tournaments, and that was the case again in 2009. He followed with five tournament wins in 2010. This year he struggled inordinately across the entire season. After winning his opening event of the season in Doha, he fell into a 12 tournament slump which lasted all the way until yesterday, when Federer struck some of his best form of the season to win his hometown event in Basel. It was the fifth time in six years that Federer had come through in that setting and his expressiveness as he stopped wildcard Kei Nishikori 6-1, 6-3 in the final revealed how badly he wanted that championship.
Federer clearly did not want this opportunity to elude him. When the week began, there was every indication that he would have his work cut out for him if he wanted to defend his title. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic was back in Switzerland. He had split the last two finals he played against Federer at this tournament in 2009 and 2010, and the Serbian seemed certain to make his way back to another final at the Swiss Indoors. Meanwhile, Andy Murray took a wild card, and loomed as a considerable threat to Federer in a potential semifinal showdown. The British standout has moved past Federer to No. 3 in the world and has built a three tournament, 15 match winning streak. Tomas Berdych was also in the field. Federer is magnificently effective indoors, but he was conceivably going to be surrounded by some big obstacles this time around at home.
Yet everything seemed to go Federer’s way. Murray suffered a muscle injury in his rear end, and withdrew from the event. As for Djokovic, he was competing for the first time since a Davis Cup loss to Juan Martin Del Potro the week after the U.S. Open. That had been a serious mistake on his part. He had hurt his back at the Open and should have skipped Davis Cup duty. Although he retired at a set and 0-3 down against the Argentinian in that match in a failed rescue mission for Serbia, Djokovic surely aggravated his back problem. In Basel, he never seemed completely comfortable. In his opening round match against Xavier Malisse, Djokovic took the first set easily but double faulted at 4-4 and break point down in the second, and lost that set. He cruised through the third and served for the match at 5-3, but a rash of errors was costly, and he double faulted that game away as well. Djokovic came through to win 7-5 in the final set, won his next match easily, but then had to fight back purposefully to oust Marcos Baghdatis 2-6, 6-2, 6-3 in the quarters. Listless at the outset, he took seven games in a row from 2-2 in the second set to regain his balance. But it had still been an uneven piece of business.
In his semifinal against Nishikori, Djokovic was on the edge of a straight set victory. He took the first set routinely, then rallied from 2-4 down in the second to win three games in a row. Djokovic had been visited by the trainer to examine an ailing shoulder that seemed to cut into his serving authority. But he made a big push to finish off Nishikori. The 21-year-old Japanese player served at 4-5, 0-30 in that second set, two points away from being ushered out of the tournament by the top seed. Djokovic put everything he had into the next rally, a brilliantly crafted 24 stroke exchange. Nishikori stood his ground obstinately, refusing to miss, answering one thundering Djokovic forehand crosscourt with a marvelous forehand half volley of his own. Djokovic eventually released a trademark sidespin backhand drop shot down the line, and kept it so low that there seemed no way Nishikori would reach it.
But somehow Nishikori chased that ball down. He scraped it back very short down the middle. Had Djokovic realized that Nishikori would get to that drop shot, he would surely have moved forward more rapidly and then been able to pass his adversary easily with his next shot. But the Serbian was flat-footed. He reacted too late, lunging at the ball and pushing the ball down the line. Nishikori easily forced Djokovic into an off balance forehand volley long with a low backhand pass up the line. Rather than being triple match point down at 0-40, he was back to 15-30. He swept the next three points in a row with two service winners and an errant backhand down the line long from Djokovic.
On they went to a tie-break, with Djokovic taking a 2-0 lead. But his serve no longer had its customary sting, and his two-handed backhand—the best in tennis—went wayward. Djokovic lost the next two points, pulled ahead 3-2 on serve, but took only one more point in that tie-break. Nishikori’s clutch serving and excellent defense off his forehand carried him back to one set all. Djokovic was spent, mentally and physically. He gave a half-hearted effort in the final set, bowing tamely 2-6, 7-6 (4), 6-0. It was only his fourth defeat in 71 matches this year, and just his second loss in a match he had completed. Djokovic was plainly preoccupied with his shoulder, and no one knew whether or not he would keep his commitment to play in Paris this week. It was disconcerting to see him only go through the motions in the final set. His professionalism all across 2011 has been extraordinary, winning him new fans everywhere he has travelled, making longtime observers look at him through a different lens. But he should have either played hard or not played at all in the final set against Nishikori.
Federer’s semifinal with Stan Wawrinka was played after the shocking Djokovic departure, which made him even more relaxed. He had already accounted for another respected rival he has owned for more than a decade, dismissing Andy Roddick 6-3, 6-2 in the quarters, raising his career record against his American rival to 21-2. Federer had teased Roddick repeatedly in that contest with his short backhand chipped return, forcing Roddick to come to the net on his own terms. At 3-4 in the first set, Roddick twice went for chipped forehand approaches off the low slice returns from Federer. That is a shot Roddick has never mastered. He looked totally uncomfortable. Federer broke him and never looked back.
Now—aware that Djokovic was gone, cognizant that his opportunity to win Basel had widened—Federer took a 9-1 career head-to-head lead over Wawrinka on court with him. Wawrinka’s lone win over his revered countryman was on clay a few years ago at Monte Carlo. Wawrinka had demonstrated over and over again that he really doesn’t believe he can beat his renowned adversary, and he proved that point once more. Wawrinka trailed 2-5, 15-30, but managed to hold on. Federer then served for the set in the ninth game but was broken at 15 as Wawrinka briefly came alive with some fine returns and one scintillating backhand down the line winner. Both men held from there to bring about a tie-break. Wawrinka was down 1-5 in that sequence, but he rallied to 4-5. Yet he inexplicably served-and-volleyed to Federer’s forehand on the next point, and the return inevitably came back too low. Federer took the tie-break 7-5 and never looked back, claiming a 7-6 (5), 6-2 win.
Nishikori had exerted himself all through the week, recouping from a set down to beat Berdych in three sets, defeating the ever tenacious Andreas Seppi 6-3, 7-6 (4), ousting the tenacious Russian Mikhail Kukishkin in a three set quarterfinal, and covering a vast amount of court in knocking out Djokovic. Federer, meanwhile, had enjoyed a relatively stress free week. His only bad match was a second round meeting with Jarkko Nieminen that went three sets. Never before in eleven previous appointments with the left-hander from Finland had Federer lost a set, but he was broken twice in a less than stellar second set. At 1-3, Federer proceeded to serve three double faults in a row to fall into a 0-40 hold, and was broken two points later. But he regrouped well enough in the third and final set.
The final round skirmish with Nishikori was the ideal showcase for the Swiss to display his full package of talent. He knows how good Nishikori is. The earnest Japanese player finished the 2008 season at No. 63 in the world. But he injured his right elbow early the next year and played only three months in 2009. In August he had surgery to repair that wrist. It was a long, arduous and debilitating climb back for Nishikori, who fell to No. 420 in the world at the end of 2009 before rising to No. 98 by the end of last year. He has had a terrific 2011 campaign, advancing to the semifinals in Shanghai recently. He is quick, sometimes flashy but always versatile off the forehand, solid off his two-handed backhand, and a good strategist. Nishikori was firmly established at No. 32 in the world heading into Basel. But he had never played Federer before, and this was neither the time nor the place for Nishikori to worry the sixteen times Grand Slam tournament champion.
In the opening game of the match, Nishikori took a 40-0 lead, but Federer was primed for this contest. He sent a blistering forehand crosscourt to force an error from his opponent, then cracked a flat forehand return down the line that was unmanageable for Nishikori. Back to deuce came Federer with a sparkling topspin backhand down the line winner. Nishikori was surely apprehensive. At deuce, Federer hit him with a barrage of forehands until the Swiss got the opening for an inside-out forehand winner. Nishikori was break point down, and tried a surprise serve-and-volley behind a second serve. Federer’s return was not that low, but Nishikori bungled his forehand first volley into the net. That was a crucial game. Federer had swept five points in a row to steal the break with first class shot making, putting Nishikori into an immediate bind. He swiftly held at 15 for 2-0. The die had been cast. Federer was not going to lose this match. Nishikori managed to hold at love for 1-2 but he was pressing nearly all of the time on his own delivery, aware that the Swiss was in an aggressive return of serve mode. In four service games during that opening set, Nishikori connected with only 12 of 30 first serves. On his own serve, Federer was rhythmic and deadly accurate. In three opening set service games, he conceded only one point. Nishikori was getting rushed into submission by a crackling Federer. At 1-3 in that first set, Nishikori came from 15-40 back to deuce, but the unrelenting aggression of Federer was too much for him. Federer broke again for 4-1. The pressure was mounting for the underdog. At 1-5 he was ahead 40-30 before losing three points in a row, double faulting long to concede the set.
The pattern continued in the second set. Federer held easily at 15 for 1-0 and went full force after the break in the second game. He had two break points but Nishikori fended him off, closing out that game with a flamboyant serve-volley combination, leaping into his backhand swing volley and giving Federer no chance to respond. Nishikori stayed with Federer until 2-2, but the Swiss promptly held at love in the fifth game. With Nishikori serving in the sixth game, Federer was all over him through three deuces, and the Swiss got the break he needed with a classic combination, using the short backhand slice to draw Nishikori in, then rolling a topspin lob off the forehand for a winner. Federer held at love for 5-2.Until he served at 5-3 in the second set, Federer had won 28 of 31 points on serve. He would win 88% of his first serve points in the match and 79% of his second serve points, a telling reflection of his excellence as well as Nishikori’s ineptitude. But when Federer tried to serve out the match at 5-3, he was at last given a test. Federer commenced that game with an ace, his fifth of the match. But Nishikori took control of the next two points to pressure Federer into mistakes. It was 15-30, but Federer’s patented first serve, setting up an inside-out forehand winner, made it 30-30. Nishikori finally reached break point, unleashing a forehand crosscourt winner off a miss-hit from Federer. Federer composed himself, sent a deep first serve down the T, and elicited a forehand return long from Nishikori.
Federer released a forehand passing shot winner up the line to arrive at match point. He then went on the attack and sealed the verdict with a winning overhead. He had registered a well-deserved straight set triumph. Federer had captured the 68th tournament of his career, but only his second of 2011. He seemed overjoyed and deeply relieved by the victory, knowing that he needs to rebuild his confidence after such a lackluster season. This was a step in the right direction for the Swiss, who was majestic for the most part in his final round dismissal of and overwhelmed Nishikori. But the larger tests are ahead. This week, Federer is in Paris for the BNP Paribas Masters 1000 event, a tournament he has played eight times in his career without once reaching the final. Then he gets a week off before returning to London to defend his Barclays ATP World Tour Finals title. He has been the victor at that prestigious event five times across his career.
At 30, Federer remains a serious threat to win tournaments, even majors. But they are much harder to come by. The numbers don’t lie. The seasons have taken their toll. Federer is now No. 4 in the world. And yet the fact remains that he is a rare champion, a man driven by the highest of pursuits, a player looking to recapture a storied past. We will soon find out whether or not winning Basel was a passing moment or a gateway toward an uplifting 2012.
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