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Steve Flink: Federer Silences Critics

9/8/2008 12:50:00 AM

by Steve Flink

Flushing Meadows--From the moment he stepped onto Arthur Ashe Stadium to confront Andy Murray in the final of the U.S. Open, Roger Federer seemed certain of himself and his chances. He knew this was his last chance to secure a major in 2008, and realized he might be playing one of the most important tennis matches of his life. A third straight loss in a "Big Four" event would have surely left Federer in a state of despondency. It would have made the entire autumn campaign on the ATP Tour an ordeal, and his outlook for 2009 would not have been very bright. In many ways, this was a must win situation for Federer, a Grand Slam event he needed more than any he has played in a very long time. He had won only 2 of the 14 events he had entered across a long and debilitating season, coming through only in relatively small tournaments at Estoril and Halle. And so his remarkable 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 triumph over Murray for his 13th Grand Slam championship must rank among his proudest moments as a competitor; seldom have so many doubted him, and maybe he has never questioned himself so thoroughly either.

Clearly, Federer had not performed well this year almost across the board. On top of that, he had lost an agonizingly close five set classic with Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, and that one seemed to set him back psychologically a good deal more than his 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 loss to the Spaniard in the Roland Garros title match. Over the summer, it was absolutely apparent that Federer was out of sorts and devoid of confidence. He lost to Gilles Simon in his opening round match at Toronto, fell in Cincinnati against the towering Ivo Karlovic, bowed out at the Olympic Games in the quarters against James Blake. His game was in disarray during that stage, and he surely came into the U.S. Open wondering if he could possibly rekindle some of his old magic, hoping he could find his way back to the top of his game, knowing he was going to need his share of luck to win it all this time around.

In the end, all of the elements came together for Federer as he reinvented himself on one of his favorite stages. In the early rounds, he was awfully apprehensive. He faced No. 23 seed Igor Andreev in the third round and escaped with a five set triumph after dropping the opening set and taking the second narrowly in a tie-break. He made 60 unforced errors and struggled inordinately with his forehand, missing short balls off that side alarmingly. He did not play well through the quarterfinals. Then he faced a critical test against No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic in the penultimate round. He halted Djokovic 6-3, 5-7, 7-5, 6-2. It was an uplifting performance from Federer, who played an outstanding first set, pounding his forehand as he once did routinely in days gone by, serving magnificently in all but the second set.

I was highly impressed by that victory. To be sure, Djokovic was beat up physically and psychologically by then. He had put himself through too many draining encounters, going four hard fought sets with Marin Cilic in the third round, playing a tough five set match with Tommy Robredo in the round of 16, and then fending off Andy Roddick in a four set quarterfinal collision. Roddick--- who came from two sets down against Djokovic to win the third set and then served for the fourth set at 5-4,30-0 before losing that chapter in a tie-break--- had jovially yet pointedly questioned Djokovic's litany of injuries and visits with trainers during matches.

A distressed Djokovic needlessly told the crowd that he thought what had been said about him was unfair. In his press conference later, the deeply emotional Serbian admitted that his comments in the interview on court had been "impulsive." He unmistakably felt badly about what he had said and done, and Roddick for his part seemed to regret that his remarks may have been misconstrued. Be that at it may, Djokovic was not in the best frame of mind as he took on Federer, and despite keeping it close for three sets, he faded significantly in the fourth. More than anything else, Djokovic's customarily robust court personality was essentially gone during this crucial collision. He was unusually subdued during the battle while Federer looked masterful at times.

Nevertheless, he still looked vulnerable at other junctures. As a 1973 Open champion told me after that match, "Roger doesn't seem to be on song yet. He plays great tennis for half an hour but then his game goes off. Murray has a chance to win that final, but then again he has never played in a Grand Slam final before, and Roger has been there so many times before and he has won 12 major titles. So we will have to see what happens. It's hard to predict."

As usual, the astute Newcombe sized things up well. Federer was primed for the big moment, while Murray had perhaps spent too much of his energy across the rest of the tournament. The 21-year-old from Great Britain had gone four tough sets with Michael Llodra, had battled back from two sets down to beat Jurgen Melzer, and had then achieved his first career win over in six meetings with Rafael Nadal in the penultimate round. But Murray had some misfortune. He won the first two sets against Nadal, and went down a break in the third set before rain halted play.

Murray had started that contest against Nadal Saturday on Louis Armstrong Stadium, and finished it Sunday on Arthur Ashe Stadium. But he had to play some tough tennis to complete his mission as Nadal briefly came alive when the match resumed. Murray did a terrific job to hold back Nadal after the Spaniard won the third set and led 3-1, 0-30 in the fourth. But Federer had that day off and that surely gave him a distinct advantage heading into the Monday final.

But Murray would have been hard pressed to beat the Federer who showed up for the final no matter what, because the Swiss maestro played one of his best matches in ages. From the outset, he set a very aggressive tone. From 2-2, he swept four games in a row. In this set and essentially during the entire match, his running forehand was outstanding, and everything he touched off that side seemed to turn to gold. His first serve stifled Murray, who stood way too far behind the baseline to do any damage with his returns. Federer was flowing, and Murray seemed a shade slower than usual.

In the second set, Federer surged to 2-0. Murray then broke Federer for the first time in the match. At 0-40, Federer tried to serve-and-volley but a low return followed by a scintillating pass got the job done for the No. 6 seed. He quickly held for 2-2, and then had Federer down 0-40 in the fifth game. Federer was a bit fortunate to get out of that game. Television replays showed that he had hit a ball over the baseline at 15-40 but Murray had not challenged that call. Had Murray gone up a break there and served with a slight cushion at 3-2, he might have given himself a chance to win the set. Had he done that, the complexion of the match could have changed, and Murray just might have sunk his teeth into the heart of the battle.

That did not happen. Murray did manage to stay on serve with Federer until 5-6, but then the 21-year-old was broken at love. Federer jumped all over his adversary. He drilled a forehand winner down the line off a short ball, punched a backhand volley into the corner that Murray could not handle for 0-30, chipped-and-charged off a backhand return of a second serve and came in to put away a smash, and rolled a forehand down the line for a winner as Murray foolishly attempted a backhand drop approach. Set to Federer, 7-5.

There was no stopping him now. He coasted to 5-0 in the third, dropped the next two games, and then broke Murray for the seventh time in the match to close it out 6-2, 7-5, 6-2. Federer attacked in this match more convincingly than I have seen him do in a long while. He used that chip and charge at all the right times to expose Murray's suspect second serve. He ran around his backhand to release some spectacular forehand returns, playing that shot ultra-aggressively. He took charge of the baseline rallies with masterful control and depth. And he served a first rate match.

In many ways, this reminded me of Federer's 6-0, 7-6, 6-0 dissection of Lleyton Hewitt in his first Open final four years ago. He never allowed Hewitt to breathe during that match, and was almost unerring in the first and third sets. The pattern of this match was quite similar. Hewitt, however, was a two time Grand Slam tournament champion who had won the U.S. Open three years earlier. He knew what he was doing on a big occasion. Murray did not have anything like that kind of experience.

And yet, I thought he was ready to play a much better match than this. He had stopped Djokovic twice over the summer, had beaten Nadal for the first time in an impressive display of poise and precision, and he had beaten Federer the last two times they had played. To be sure, he had taken on Federer when the Swiss was more vulnerable than usual. The first of those Murray wins was at Cincinnati in 2006, and Federer had played a string of long matches the previous week in the Masters Series event in Canada. He was edgy and even indifferent. The second time he upended Federer was earlier this year in Dubai, when Federer had not played since the Australian Open.

As majestic as Federer was--- and this was as well as he has played in all of 2008--- Murray was not where he needed to be. After serving 21 aces against Nadal, he had only three against Federer. He made only five less unforced errors than Federer (33 to 28), and there should have been a much wider disparity between the two. And Murray came to the net a mere 11 times in the three sets. His tactical flexibility--- one of his greatest strengths--- was largely missing as Federer relentlessly picked him apart. In fact, Federer won 31 of 44 points approaching the net for a healthy winning percentage of 70%. Murray is one of the sport's better counter-attackers, so all credit goes to Federer on that.

So Federer has made history of a high order again. No one in the men's game had ever won five majors in a row at two different Grand Slam events. Federer did it at Wimbledon from 2003-2007 and now he has replicated that remarkable feat in New York. Above all else, Federer silenced his critics by coming through to win the final major of the year. He needed this one badly. Nadal has had the superior year with his two majors and a gold medal in Beijing, and the Spaniard will almost certainly finish the year at No. 1 in the world.

But, even so, Roger Federer is back in business. Regardless of what happens in the fall, he has recovered his inner conviction. And he has redefined his greatness. As the curtain closes on the Open, Federer is in a pretty good place.

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