Posts Tagged ‘U.S. Open’

It’s Over: Federer’s Otherworldly Streak of 23 Consecutive Semi-Final Appearances Broken by a Sledgehammer

June 1st, 2010 No comments

I’d seen the future during the 2009 Australian Open, when Roger Federer fell down by a quick two sets to the hard-hitting Czech, Tomas Berdych. Scrambling and on defense, Federer mustered all of his considerable court craft (and a mental vacation by Berdych) to get through the early-round match in five sets. I thought then that Berdych and maybe one or two others had the arsenal to defeat Federer: height and torrid groundstrokes than would take away the great one’s time to create his inspiring masterpieces.

In last year’s U.S. Open final, Juan Martin DelPotro, another hard-hitting giant, blew Federer off the court in the fifth set. And then it happened again today — in the quarterfinal of the French Open, which was almost universally expected to feature a final between Federer and his personal bane, Rafael Nadal, he was caught and passed by the thumping, hammering strokes of Robin Soderling. After Federer won the first set, he let down just a bit (as he did against DelPotro last year), and Soderling stormed through the breach. By Federer’s last service game, the clearly rattled Swiss committed four unforced errors to hand the match over to Soderling to serve out — which he easily did, showing remarkable nerve.

One point sticks in my mind as emblematic of  the limits of Federer’s great genius. With a set point to go up by two sets to one, Federer tracked down an overhead smash. He executed a beautiful, balletic jump from the nether reaches of the court, well beyond the baseline, and hit a curving shot at full stretch. The ball was headed toward Soderling’s side of the net, where it would have dropped in for a set-ending winner, likely turning the match around. But not today! Soderling stretched upward (I’m not sure he’s capable of leaving his feet), reached over his head and hit an-over-the-back shot into the open court. Here it is:

After that, the whole thing unfolded with a kind of preditability — even though this is a guy Federer had defeated all of the previous twelve times they’d played. But he’s improved, and he’s not the same player here — especially under these conditions. Last year, on a similarly wet and heavy day, Soderling blew Nadal off the court on his way to a final against Federer, where he caved under the weight of destiny, as instantiated by Federer’s almost perfect game that day.

Federer had a great deal to lose. In addition to having his just…silly streak of 23 consecutive semi-final or better appearances in Grand Slam events (dating back to 2004!) snapped, he will lose the number one ranking next week if Nadal goes on to win the French Open. In that case, he’ll be one week short of Pete Sampras’s all-time record for most weeks at Number 1. And with Nadal almost five years younger and on the ascendancy once again, there’s no guarantee he’ll ever get it back.

But don’t expect Nadal to waltz through the final. I think Soderling has shown that he’s ready to step up and win the event. He’s already shown that he can take down both Nadal and Federer on clay. Now he “just” has to do it in the final. I’m reminded of a line from the justly forgotten Superman III, where Robert Vaughn says to a henchman:

I asked you to kill Superman. And now you tell me you couldn’t do that one simple thing?

Soderling just killed Superman. Now let’s see if he can take down the Hulk — for a second time, and when it most matters.

Shadows and Light — The Compromises of an Aging Athlete

February 1st, 2010 2 comments
Roger Federer poses with his Australian Open trophy on the bank of the Yarra River in Melbourne on Monday, a day after capturing his 16th Grand Slam title.

Yesterday, Roger Federer captured his record-extending sixteenth title in a Grand Slam tournament, winning the Australian Open in a one-sided match against the latest pasty-faced Brit pretender, Andy Murray. (Here‘s a good summary of the match.) Murray, a Scot,  is an inventive and amazingly mobile player, and he’ll soon win one of these big ones: probably either the U.S. or the Australian Open (the suffocating pressure at Wimbledon might be too much to overcome, at least for awhile). But watching Federer cruise to yet another title, one had to ask: “Will this never end?”

It probably will, and sometime soon. But these days, with rival Rafael Nadal’s career clearly in peril because of the persistent injuries his relentless style and body type make inevitable, it’s easy to see Federer as unstoppable. And part of the reason is that the past year has seen a new Federer: a man who realizes that his time at the top is limited, and that he can’t simply assume he’s going to win every match on his unsurpassed talent alone. Compromises have been made; some wise and inevitable, others disturbing (if slightly amusing).

Over the past year, Federer has added the strategic drop shot to his already formidable arsenal. For years, he’d eschewed it as a desperate, almost avulsive, way to end a point. Now he uses it against the Legion of Baseline Heroes, who stand back and blast away. Throw in a drop shot and watch their comfort level drop. He’s also added a violent second-serve return, no longer able to rely on his sliced or chipped backhand to get the point back on neutral terms. He didn’t do much of this sort of returning against Murray (and when he tried, it rarely worked), but the threat of it can have the desired effect of unsettling the opponent.

These innovations are smart, and, if anything, one might ask why Federer didn’t try them sooner in his career. The answer, of course, is that he didn’t need to.With the glaring exception of Nadal (mostly on clay), Federer was unbeatable. From 2005-2007, he barely lost any matches at all.

Now, it’s different. The general public, to the extent it follows tennis at all, looks to the four Grand Slam tournaments (mentioned above, plus the French Open) as the measure of success; there, Federer continues at his insane level — 23 consecutive semifinals, and 8 consecutive finals, reached; an average of more than two of these majors won every year for the past eight years; and so on. But Federer has been mortal for the past few years at all of the other tournaments. He now saves and marshals his best efforts.

Less savory are some of the other things Federer has been willing to do in order to keep winning. In his quarter-final match against the human ball-striking machine named Nikolay Davydenko, Federer was in deep trouble: Down a set and a break of serve, and almost down another. He rallied and won (of course), but he used a kind of perceptive gamesmanship to do so. After the first set, he took a bathroom break. This is permissible, and a regular practice of many players. (Even Venus Williams took such a break at this year’s Aussie Open, and I can’t recall seeing her do that before.) But Federer has long decried gamesmanship of any kind, calling out the whiny Novak Djokovic for his “injury” timeouts. Of course, when I heard why Federer took the time out, I was too impressed by his perceptive abilities to criticize him. Speaking to ESPN’s Darren Cahill shortly after the match, Federer said he was trying to survive until the sun went down; the match had been conducted under a late-afternoon sun, and Federer had said (almost poetically) that the ball was “half in shadow, half in light” so that he could only see half of it. Someone could construct a musical suite on this theme.

But what about Federer’s sophisticated mind-game (not really “trash talking”, to be precise) against Murray in the days before the match? Some of it was just funny: In the interview after his semifinal with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Federer said that the British hadn’t won a Grand Slam “in like 150,000″ years (74 is the slightly more accurate number). But in press conferences before the final, Federer turned up the heat: Murray would feel the pressure; It would be important for Murray — but not for him — to win the first set; Murray’s head-to-head winning record against Federer (which now stands at 6-5) was constructed when Federer “wasn’t at [his] very best”; Murray had cratered during the previous major final encounter (at the 2008 U.S. Open, also won by Federer in straight sets).

The tactics seem to have worked, but maybe they weren’t necessary. Federer enjoys amazing crowd support everywhere he goes, even against home-town heroes. This, too, helps him win. Is his new approach a risk to this capital of good will? Perhaps. And to what lengths will he go to remain on top? We’ll see. But these latest actions by the great Federer remind us that elite athletes will do what they need, even if the rest of us don’t like or understand it. Just watch and enjoy his sublime tennis, while it lasts.

Federer, Schmederer?

July 6th, 2009 No comments

Well, he did it. Yesterday, Roger Federer overcame a game and determined — and vastly improved —  Andy Roddick to win his sixth Wimbledon title, and to regain the Number 1 ranking that he’d rented to Rafael Nadal for the past ten months. But most significantly, Federer passed Pete Sampras, 15-14 in career majors  (commonly but incorrectly called “Grand Slams” — a true “Grand Slam” is winning all four majors1 in the same year), and is now the all-time leader….

Among the men. Margaret Court leads the whole tennis pack with 24(!), but few regard  her as “the greatest” because half of her titles came at the Australian Open, which, during the 1950s and 60s, when she played, was but little attended by non-Aussies. (Even Bjorn Borg, for example, who played in the 1970s and early 1980s only competed “Down Under” once during his career). Steffi Graf, regarded by some as the greatest female player ever, has 22 majors to her credit, but to some (see Frank DeFord), her accomplishment is tarnished because her would-have-been principal rival, Monica Seles, basically became a non-contender after her stabbing (by a Graf fan, no less). Seles had been routinely beating Graf and everyone else at majors, collecting trophies like complimentary mints. Oh, and Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova each finished their long careers with 18 majors; were they better than Federer?

Is it possible to compare women’s tennis to men’s? Probably not, but the same should  likely be said about the effort to decide who’s the best male player. Is Federer “betterer” than Sampras? I’d say yes, as his greater variety and all-court excellence led to the capture of all majors, including the clay-court French Open. Federer: Four French Open finals, one win (three losses to Nadal, a force of nature on clay). Sampras: No French Open finals, even. But some would say Sampras faced tougher competition. I don’t agree, but that’s the point: We’ll never know. Rod Laver won the Grand Slam twice, and doubtless would have captured more than the eleven majors he did win, except that he turned pro at a time when pros couldn’t compete at the majors. How many majors did he sacrifice? Hard to say, because all of the best players were on the pro circuit. And on and on goes the debate, fun but ultimately fruitless.

Whatever the tennis gods think, we can agree that Federer’s accomplishments over the past several years, and yesterday, are just astonishing. His level of consistent excellence — 21 consecutive semi-final or better appearances — is even less likely to be duplicated than Joe DiMaggio’s preposterous 56-game hitting streak.

Watching the match yesterday with a family of divided loyalties, I was — as always — on the Federer side. But Roddick played with belief and heart, and now I want him to win…something big. Maybe the U.S. Open? He’s surely put himself back on the short list. Go, Andy!

Here’s how it ended:

  1. The Australian, French, and U.S. Opens, and Wimbledon

Federer, The Movie(s)

June 9th, 2009 No comments

Watch this:

…and this…

finally, this…

These “scenes from a career” are about all I have to add to the endless stream of tributes bathing Roger Federer in the wake of annexing his first French Open title this past Sunday; the win that gives him cred in the “best ever” argument. But the issue of who’s best can’t be resolved by arguments, stats, or by any other means extrinsic to the game. Just as reading a music review provides little illumination of what you really care about in listening, so does reading about tennis — or any sport — inherently fail to do it justice.

In Federer’s case, more than for any other player I’ve seen, there’s also a huge gulf between even the best televised version of his game and the real thing. When I saw him play a quarterfinal against the talented but overmatched David Nalbandian in 2004 — on his way to his first of five-and-counting U.S. Open Titles — I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. Catch it while you can.