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Steve Flink: The Resurrection of Roger

3/19/2012 7:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

When a champion is at the height of his powers—dominating the game with automatic ease, winning through force of will and habit, recording triumphs calmly, methodically and even majestically—we tend to take him for granted. The great players all celebrate stretches when they seem to live on the edge of invincibility, to find success no matter how deeply they are challenged, to compete at each critical moment with both equanimity and a steadfastness of character. When winning is a formality for a towering individual, we don’t always fully appreciate the investment that player has made to succeed so regularly when the stakes are highest.

That is the way it once was for Roger Federer. From 2004-2007, he was almost entirely invulnerable. The Swiss Maestro was stupendous across that stretch of excellence, winning 11 of the 16 majors over those four years, capturing 42 singles titles, losing only 24 matches. He stood imperiously at the top of the mountain while the tennis world looked up to him with the utmost of respect, expecting Federer to keep setting majestic standards and rising to big occasions without hesitation. But then, of course, the passage of time and reality set in. Federer was dethroned by Rafael Nadal as the game’s greatest player in 2008. He was preeminent again in 2009, but then endured some very tough times in 2010 and 2011. Nadal eclipsed him again in 2010, and Novak Djokovic stepped forward emphatically in 2011 to establish his presence as the best player in the world, leaving Federer at a distant No. 3 at the end of an arduous season.

He did, however, conclude 2011 with a morale boosting three tournament winning streak, including a record breaking sixth tournament victory at the prestigious Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London. That late season surge carried Federer into 2012 with newfound self-conviction. The fact remained that his season did not commence as he would have wanted. Federer fell in the semifinals of the Australian Open against a typically unwavering Nadal, and then he bowed unexpectedly in a Davis Cup contest at home in Switzerland against John Isner. Adding insult to injury, he lost in the doubles with Stan Wawrinka as the Americans swept past Switzerland in the opening round.

Federer’s stock appeared to be perhaps in slow yet permanent decline. The chorus of skeptics was growing, getting louder with every passing loss. But Federer is not an icon by accident. He has always known who he is, what he can do, how he can turn things around. After that pair of penetrating setbacks against Nadal and Isner, he refused to drift into sorrow or disillusionment. He went to Rotterdam and won the tournament there, upending Juan Martin Del Potro in the final after a gritty, come from behind semifinal victory over Nikolay Davydenko. He moved right on to Dubai, and claimed that title as well, stopping none other than Andy Murray in the final.

Rotterdam and Dubai were good wins for Federer, but both are ATP World Tour 500 events. He wanted and needed something more when he set his sights on the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California. At stake there was a Masters 1000 crown. Federer had last secured that Indian Wells title back in 2006, when he was the champion for the third year in a row. Since that time in the desert, Federer had not made it to the final over the past five years. But this time around, Federer took another important step toward resurrection at the majors, avenging his Davis Cup defeat to Isner with a 7-6 (7), 6-3 victory in the Indian Wells final. He has now amassed three tournaments in a row, 15 consecutive match victories, and a degree of confidence that simply can’t be measured by the numbers. Federer is performing with a zestfulness that is rare for such an accomplished man. His drive and determination matches or exceeds any of his foremost rivals at the moment. He could be resting on his laurels, but instead remains preoccupied with an all-consuming quest for the game’s greatest prizes.

In the Indian Wells final against Isner, Federer was primed for his appointment with Isner on an inordinately cool and windy day in California. The blustery conditions worked largely in Federer’s favor against the 6’9” American. Isner had served magnificently the previous afternoon in overcoming world No. 1 Djokovic in a hard fought, spectacularly suspenseful contest, releasing 21 aces, frequently sending out deliveries in excess of 140 MPH, overwhelming the sport’s finest returner with the blinding speed and astonishing accuracy of his serve. But with the wind swirling perplexingly during his duel with Federer, Isner had to compromise. He connected with 73% of his first serves but he seldom broke 130 MPH and usually settled in the range of 123 MPH. Federer was able to block a large number of backhand returns back into play, and Isner was not as commanding on serve as he had been against Djokovic. He served only four aces.

Nevertheless, Isner stayed with Federer admirably all through the crucial opening set, which the American needed more than the Swiss. In fact, Isner had a good opening to break Federer early. With Federer serving at 1-1 in the opening set, Isner moved to 15-40 as the Swiss netted a forehand drop shot, miss-hit a topspin backhand wide, and drove a forehand long. Federer made it back to deuce swiftly, connecting with two first serves in a row, taking control of those points. Federer sensed Isner’s intention to run around his backhand for a forehand return at deuce, and the Swiss double faulted. Isner thus had a third break point, but once more Federer met the moment ably. He got another first serve in, moved forward behind a forehand, and put away a decisive overhead.

Federer held on gamely for 2-1, saving three break points. Federer’s return game was decidedly better than Isner’s in the rough, windy conditions. In Davis Cup, Isner began crushing second serve returns emphatically on the indoor clay in high altitude, and he imposed himself decidedly in the process. But in the California wind, Isner often looked helpless in confronting Federer’s precise deliveries. After that difficult third game of the match, Federer took 16 of 17 service points on his way to a tie-break. Isner collected 20 of 25 points on his serve to reach 6-6, although he needed to save a set point with a 129 MPH service winner to the forehand in the twelfth game, which went to deuce three times.

Both players recognized the importance of the tie-break, and they performed apprehensively. Isner took a 3-2, mini-break lead when Federer made one of his few forehand unforced errors into the net. But the towering American was serving into the wind on the sixth point, and Federer caught him off guard with a deep return that Isner could not handle. They changed ends, and Isner caught the net tape with an inside-out forehand. Federer was seemingly back in control, serving with a 4-3 lead. But he double faulted. With the score locked at 5-5, Isner missed a first serve but his second serve had heavy kick and great depth. Federer managed to return it, and won the point when Isner miss-hit a backhand long.

Now Federer served at set point, leading 6-5. With the wind at his back, Isner cautiously steered a forehand return deep, and then followed with another deep forehand to provoke a backhand error from Federer. Federer promptly made amends with a service winner for 7-6. The Swiss had a second set point with Isner serving on the 14th point, but surprisingly he drove an inside-out forehand wide. At 7-7, Isner seemed certain to earn his first set point. He came in on the Federer backhand, and the Swiss miss-hit a passing shot at a high trajectory. Isner understandably let the ball go by him, believing it would travel long. But somehow the shot stayed in the court. Federer’s good fortune took him to set point for the third time. He sealed it on serve when Isner drove a backhand return long.

Federer remained essentially untouchable on serve in the second set, winning 16 of 17 points on his delivery. Isner, meanwhile, seemed fatigued. At 3-3, Federer employed his favorite tactical play. Twice in that game on his way to 15-40, Federer drew the big man in with short, low backhand chips, setting up and inside-out forehand passing shot winner followed by a scintillating backhand down the line pass into a wide open space. Two games later, Isner served to stay in the match, but Federer broke again. The Swiss took 12 of the last 16 points over the last three games as Isner faded. Federer had used the wind to his advantage, taking his 73rd career ATP World Tour title with guile and perspicacity.

Federer could well have never come out of the gates in California. There was a serious bug travelling around in the vicinity of the tournament, and it forced many players—including Davydenko—to pull out of the event at one stage or another. Federer’s coach, Paul Annacone, spent the tail end of the tournament back at his lodgings as he became ill along with so many others. Federer himself had contracted an illness that he felt was more of a family issue, and he was clearly struggling considerably with his health at the start of the tournament. Had he not commenced his campaign against 19-year-old American Denis Kudla—a player ranked No. 185 in the world—Federer might not have found the strength to make it out of the second round.

But even in his depleted state, Federer clipped Kudla in straight sets. He then confronted the imposing Milos Raonic for the first time in the third round, and that was a match he could easily have lost. The 6’5” Canadian did not seem intimidated by Federer, and he served brilliantly all across the first set under the lights. Neither man was broken and that set was settled in a tie-break. Raonic did not lose a point on his serve in the sequence, connecting with four out of five first serves, coming through 7-4. But the 21-year-old wasted a 30-0 lead in the opening game of the second set, and Federer broke him to alter the complexion of the contest. At 1-3 in that second set, Raonic had 40-15 but Federer broke him again.

Those lapses were costly for the 21-year-old, and soon it was one set all. At 3-3 in the third, Federer made his move. With Raonic serving at 30-40 in that essential seventh game, Federer used the same play that worked so well against Isner in the final. He went to his old standby, chipping his backhand return short to lure Raonic in, then rolling a backhand pass up the line for a sparkling winner. Federer prevailed 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-4 without losing his serve, but knew full well that Raonic could have knocked him out of the tournament with the potency of his ground game and his crackling serve.

Federer had more hard work ahead. In the round of 16, he faced the left-handed Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci for the first time. Belluci is a free-wheeling shot maker, and he blew Federer off the court in the first set, breaking the Swiss twice, taking the set commandingly. But he let his guard down at the start of the second and Federer drew even swiftly. And yet, Federer was in a tight corner, serving at 4-4, 0-30 in the final set. He then bailed himself out handsomely, throwing in four excellent first serves in a row to stifle his 24-year-old adversary. Federer climbed out of that one 3-6, 6-4, 6-4. He then faced Juan Martin Del Potro for the fourth time in this young 2012 season. In the opening game of that encounter, Federer made good on only 5 of 18 first serves, and Del Potro had two break points. But, on the sixth deuce of that game, Federer sent a first serve wide in the deuce court. Both players thought the serve was probably out, but there was no call. Del Potro challenged, but the Hawkeye replay system malfunctioned.

That meant the call had to stand, much to the angst of a livid Del Potro. He badgered the highly respected umpire Mohamed Lahyani, pleading with him to overrule the call. But Lahyani was looking into the sun and felt he could not see that line sufficiently to make that judgment. Federer held on for 1-0, and Del Potro should have been able to leave his distress behind him. But he kept making remarks to Lahyani for several more games. His concentration was gone, and Federer was in fine fiddle. He erased Del Potro comprehensively 6-3, 6-2, wasting no energy in the process.

And so that surprisingly easy quarterfinal win over Del Potro on Friday afternoon left Federer fresh and ready for his meeting with Nadal in the semifinals. Not since 2005 in Miami—when the Swiss rallied from two sets to love down to topple the 18-year-old Spaniard in the final—had Federer beaten Nadal outdoors on a hard court. The match was delayed for about three hours by the first rain of the week at Indian Wells, and the players had to contend with fierce winds as well as damp skies as they clashed in the semifinals. Many learned observers believed the conditions might benefit Nadal since Federer’s game requires a higher risk factor. But that was not the case at all.

Federer was astounding with his ball control. It was as if he was competing on an ideal day. The Swiss was striking the forehand with extraordinary pace and precision, hitting through the ball purposefully, turning the wind into an ally. He was unruffled, sharp, ultra-aggressive, and thoroughly prepared to challenge a rival who had beaten him 18 of 27 times across their careers. To be sure, Federer has seldom played better on a hard court against Nadal. And yet, conversely, Nadal was abysmal by his standards, caught up in a negative frame of mind, surprisingly unable to adapt to the weather and the wind. Nadal’s backhand in this match was way off the mark. He miss-hit far too many balls off that side, never found a consistent length, and had virtually no timing. He was ill at ease and out of sorts.

And yet, the first set was decided largely by Federer’s superior big point play. The Swiss was down 15-40 in the first game. As was true all week, he brushed aside the pressure with outright self-assurance. Federer released an ace, two unstoppable first serves, and then another excellent first serve down the T that set up a trademark forehand inside-out winner. With that impressive display, Federer held onto his serve. Nadal was up 40-30 in the second game, but Federer attacked skillfully, snapping away an elegant high backhand volley winner. Federer came to the net with conviction to take the next two points, gaining the break for 2-0. Nevertheless, Federer found himself down 0-30 in the third game, but gathered himself admirably, taking four points in a row to move ahead 3-0.

And yet, Nadal held at love for 1-3, broke Federer at the cost of only one point in the fifth game, and held on from deuce to reach 3-3. Nadal had asserted himself to get back in the set, but Federer’s rhythm and inner belief was not shaken. The Swiss held at love for 4-3, and then stole another game that seemed certain to go to Nadal. Then Spaniard served at 3-4, 40-30, but a deep service return from Federer forced Nadal into a sliced backhand error. Federer laced an inside-out forehand to open up an avenue for a topspin backhand crosscourt winner. Nadal then missed a high trajectory backhand down the line long. Federer had regained his authority. Serving for the set at 5-3, he was at his very best, holding at love with three winners in that sequence.

Federer had played a superb first set, while Nadal had not performed shabbily himself. Twice, Nadal had lost his serve after having game points; once he had not been able to convert a pair of break points; once he had Federer down 0-30. Nadal had lost all four of those crucial games. Federer had simply outperformed the Spaniard when it mattered most, but Nadal would normally have shaken off that disappointment swiftly and moved on intensely with the job at hand.

Not this time. After a love hold to start the second set, the Spaniard struggled mightily as the wind blew with increasing force. His backhand deteriorated flagrantly. And yet, while Nadal self-destructed in many ways, Federer remained sublime. He broke Nadal twice on his way to a commanding 5-2 lead. In the seventh game, a clearly disconsolate Nadal double faulted at 30-30 and then miss-hit a backhand wide as Federer kept blasting forehands to the vulnerable side of Nadal. Federer served for the match at 5-2, and suddenly Nadal’s ferocity emerged. He broke Federer at 15, sprinkling the court with three dazzling forehand winners in that game. Nadal held on for 4-5, and even had a chance when Federer served for the match a second time in the tenth game.

Federer double faulted to fall behind 15-30. He recovered to 30-30, but Nadal had him at bay during a fiercely contested rally. At the end of that exchange, Federer made a fine defensive save off the forehand, but his shot landed in Nadal’s wheelhouse. Nadal ran around the backhand to go for another blistering forehand, but netted it. And then rain forced a four minute delay with Federer at match point. He was imperturbable, walking back on court and acing Nadal wide to the forehand in the Ad Court. Victory to Federer 6-3, 6-4. Federer’s brilliance was unmistakable, his win thoroughly deserved. As for Nadal, it was one of his most uneven performances in a long while.

Perhaps Nadal had taken too much out of himself the afternoon before during a stern test from old rival David Nalbandian. The 30-year-old Argentine played like the man who has finished five years in his distinguished career among the top ten in the world. Nalbandian had climbed as high as No. 3 in the world. During this encounter with Nadal in the quarterfinals of Indian Wells, Nalbandian recaptured much of the form that he once displayed with regularity. His ball striking off both sides was phenomenal. He took the first set from Nadal and the Spaniard was dangerously close to a straight set exit. Nadal served at 3-4, 0-30 in the second set before holding on tenuously. At 4-5, Nadal was two points from defeat when he hit an inside-out forehand that clipped the baseline, coaxing an error from Nalbandian. Nadal had been an inch away from falling behind match point. He held on for 5-5, broke for 6-5 on a Nalbandian double fault, and closed out the set 7-5.

In the final set, Nadal lifted his game decidedly, taking control of the rallies, wearing down Nalbandian with the weight of his shots. Nadal surged to 5-2 after breaking serve twice. But, with a strong wind gathering, Nadal faltered. He lost his serve, could not convert a match point on Nalbandian’s serve in the following game, and then fell behind 15-40 in the tenth game. At last, Nadal put the clamps down and closed out the match 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, but the extra effort required in the end may have left Nadal less sprightly than usual for his appointment with Federer.

Meanwhile, Isner did a terrific job to reach his first Masters 1000 tournament final. Facing the Frenchman Gilles Simon in the quarters, Isner rallied from a break down to take the opening set but then lost his confidence inexplicably in the second set after letting a 40-15 lead slip away on his serve at 1-2. Isner was disgruntled in losing that set, but he settled down in the final set. Serving first in that third set, Isner controlled his service games with remarkable authority against a former top ten player who possesses some of the best ball control in tennis. Fittingly, Isner broke Simon at 5-6 in the third to wrap up a hard earned triumph, coming through 6-3, 1-6, 6-4 to earn the right to take on world No. 1 Djokovic.

Isner surely had a clear recollection of a Davis Cup contest he had with Djokovic two years ago in Serbia. On indoor clay, he stretched Djokovic to five hard sets. This time around on the hard courts at Indian Wells, Isner played arguably the match of his life. Early on, the 6’9” American lost his serve, and Djokovic seemed certain to capture the opening set. Djokovic served for the set at 5-4. A year ago he would surely have closed it out unhesitatingly. But Djokovic opened the tenth game with a costly double fault, and played that entire game with extreme caution. Isner sensed his chance, broke back, and on they went to a tie-break.

The wind was not much of a factor in this contest, and Isner was serving prodigiously, much bigger and better than he would in the final. Moreover, he was causing concern for Djokovic with his aggressive posture on the return of serve, running around his backhand whenever possible to unleash massive flat forehands. He missed his share of those as well, but the strategy was sensible. Isner took a 5-3 lead in the tie-break with a 140 MPH ace down the T, but Djokovic caught the American off guard on the next point with a terrific return off another scorching serve. Djokovic was back on serve at 4-5 in the tie-break, but he double faulted again, the second and last time he would allow that to happen in the match. Djokovic saved a set point on serve to make it 5-6.

An unflinching Isner served-and-volleyed on the next point, but Djokovic landed the return at his feet to set up a routine passing shot for 6-6. But Isner exploded with a 139 MPH ace down the T for 7-6. Djokovic was now down set point for the third time. He saved it when Isner erred on a sliced backhand, but the American was unrelenting, using an inside-out forehand approach to set up a forehand volley winner into the clear. Isner was now serving at 8-7. His deep second serve was too much for Djokovic, who netted a backhand return. Isner had improbably taken the first set in his fourth set point. But the Serbian raised his game significantly in the second set. In five service games he won 20 of 21 points. He almost taunted Isner during the rallies, moving the big man around relentlessly, stepping up the pace and depth of his own shots. Djokovic got the one break he needed to seal that set.

Heading into the third set, Djokovic seemed very likely to succeed. But Isner’s serve became even more formidable. In his first three service games of the final set, Isner conceded only three points. At 3-3, however, he was down break point. Isner refused to buckle. He released a 143 MPH first serve to the Djokovic backhand that was unmanageable for the Serbian. Isner gamely held on for 4-3. At 5-6, Djokovic faced his own crisis, saving a match point with a strategically placed first serve to the Isner backhand that was too good.

The match concluded appropriately in another tie-break. Isner led 2-0 before Djokovic rallied forcefully to 2-2. Then Isner cracked a 143 MPH ace down the T for 3-2, and he surged to 4-2 with a forehand inside-in return winner from the Ad court off a second serve. Djokovic took the next point to make it 4-3 for Isner, and here the American was commendable. A huge first serve gave him control of the next point, and he won it with a forehand inside-out winner. He followed with a thundering 144 MPH first serve to the Djokovic backhand. Djokovic made good contact with the ball, but his return went into the net tape. Isner had advanced to 6-3, triple match point.

Djokovic, however, was not going to bow out tamely. He served an ace, and then came up with an unanswerable first serve. Isner had to serve it out at 6-5. He did not blink, blasting his 21st and final ace wide to the backhand in the Ad Court. Isner had toppled the world No. 1 7-6 (7), 3-6, 7-6 (5) with grit, gumption and grace. Djokovic had won 117 points in the match, eleven more than Isner. The Serbian had won 78% of his first serve points, while Isner won 72% in that category. Djokovic took 62% of his second serve points, 10% better than Isner. The Serbian broke serve twice in the match and lost his serve only once. But Djokovic was beaten deservedly for two primary reasons: he did not serve out the first set at 5-4, and Isner played two outstanding tie-breaks.

Isner thus has cracked the top ten in the world for the first time in his career. There is no good reason why he should not remain there all year long. He was outplayed considerably by Federer in the Indian Wells final, but the fact remains that his game translates very well against all four of the game’s standout players. He had a remarkable five set match with Nadal at Roland Garros in the first round a year ago, and has had some compelling hard court contests with the Spaniard as well. He has beaten Djokovic and Federer. He played a very good four set quarterfinal in losing to Andy Murray at the U.S. Open last September. Isner will be the single most dangerous player outside the top four at the majors this year, particularly at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Be that as it may, the resurgence of Federer remains the sport’s top storyline at the moment. Since he fell in the U.S. Open semifinals against Djokovic last year after two match points eluded him in the fifth set, the Swiss has been triumphant in six of his last eight tournaments. He has won three tournaments and 15 matches in a row this year. His stellar record across the last six months has led him back from No. 4 in the world last autumn to a strong No. 3 at the moment. In the current ATP World Tour Rankings—a system that measures a player’s performance over a 12 month period—Federer is closing the gap rapidly on both Nadal and Djokovic. Before Indian Wells, Djokovic stood far ahead of the pack with 13,310 points, with Nadal behind him at 10,415, and Federer in third at 8,710. But now Djokovic’s total is 12,670. Nadal has 10,175 points, and Federer has moved up to 9,350. If Federer somehow keeps his streak going and wins Miami, he could move past Nadal and get even closer to Djokovic.

Looking strictly at the ATP Rankings Race to London—which counts points only in 2012—Federer is in even better shape. He is at No. 1 in the race with 2820 points, with Djokovic at No. 2 (2540 points), and Nadal No. 3 (1800 points). He deserves all of the many plaudits we are all hoisting his way these days. Federer is revitalized, driven by the most powerful private engines of his generation, guided by a work ethic and professionalism that is second to none in his trade. The guess here is that he could well win a seventh Wimbledon and 17th career Grand Slam championship in July.

The fact remains that Federer has not won a major since the 2010 Australian Open. In his last eight appearances at the Grand Slam events, he has been to only one final. And it must be said that his only two losses since the U.S. Open—to Nadal in Melbourne and Isner in Davis Cup—have not been insubstantial. And yet, all observant eyes will be on Roger Federer in Miami. We will be looking to see if can replicate in Florida what he just did in California. Federer last won Miami back in 2006, and has not returned to the final since then. He will have to contend with a Djokovic who will not willingly let go of his crown, with a Nadal who will inevitably be sharper and more energized than he was at Indian Wells, with an Andy Murray who will be determined to make amends for a dismal loss to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez at Indian Wells.

But this much is certain: Federer has gained the full attention and a growing respect from all of his chief rivals, and his mindset has not been this positive in an exceedingly long time.