Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Can Roger Federer turn fantastic form into U.S. Open triumph?

Fresh off defending his latest Masters 1000 title in Cincinatti, Roger Federer is the force to be reckoned with heading into the US Open. But can he sustain his brilliant form for the whole Flushing Meadows fortnight?

One year ago in New York, the release of the US Open draw sent Federer fans' hearts soaring. For once, the former champion was in a half relieved of Big 4 co-members Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, as well as other key contenders such as Stan Wawrinka. Unbelievably, a dream run to the final lay ahead of the 17-time Slam champion.

And Roger Federer was not about to let go of this massive opportunity, sailing or struggling – but always surviving – through the competition lined up before him.

That is, up until the semifinals, when Roger emerged a shambolic mess against Croat Marin Cilic. He bowed out meekly, painfully, and in straight sets – just hours after Kei Nishikori had taken Novak out of the competition.

To the unanimous shock of the tennis world, Marin Cilic – world no.16 and drug-banned the previous year – won the US Open. Roger Federer, meanwhile, had left New York.

This shattering recount sums up the Roger Federer of today. A legend of the sport, the Swiss maestro was basically told to retire by people the world over when his fabulous 2012 season was followed up with a miserable 2013. One lone ATP title and a host of losses tell that tale. He may have issued a resounding Shut Up with an almighty 2014 that shot him back to world no.2, but Slam triumph is the lone component yet to return to Federer's repertoire.

Yesterday in Cincinatti, Roger Federer finished his impressive tournament with a 7-6 6-3 defeat of Novak Djokovic – the world no.1 who has out-achieved every player on tour this season. Keeping up his new and effective tactic of rushing in to attack returns, he dominated the winner count and played his best tennis when he needed it, ensuring that he defended his title for the loss of zero sets. This, even with then-world no.2 Andy Murray his penultimate opponent.

It's the sort of stunning run that we saw at several Masters 1000 events last year. And the same that we have seen in many tournaments this year. Just not at majors.

A niggling question is why Roger couldn't sustain himself like this at Wimbledon, where he has reigned seven times over. If he can beat Novak in Cincy, why not in London, with best-of-five sets and history on his side?

In SW19 last year, Roger was vintage. Match after match, his serve was supreme, his movement effortless, volleys beautiful and winners sharp. He swept through his opening six matches with little difficulty.

In the final versus Djokovic, his sustained this level for much of the match. The world no.1, however – after a lacklustre tournament – had saved his best until the deciding Sunday. The Serbian's 'A' game saw him gain championship point up 2-5 in the fourth set.

That's when Roger's flames reignited. He threw down an ace to fend it off, and went on a run of four successive games to claim a 7-5 set – a heroic that reduced some overwhelmed onlookers to tears.

The final set continued the supreme quality of the match of the season... until, down 4-5, and after a tremendous performance, Roger coughed up 4 fatal unforced errors to seal his fate.

3 hours and 56 minutes. 4 miss-hits. A heartbreaking Novak win.

Several of his other recent Slam campaigns tell a similar tale – although not by such slim margins. Still fresh to the memory is this year's edition of Wimbledon.

Remarkably similar to 2014, Roger was on absolute fire during his opening matches. His whole game was zoning, and his serve was off the charts. Efficient, accurate, lethal and dangerous, it was broken all of once in six matches, and saw him to utter domination. His semifinal performance versus Murray - which he finished in straight sets - showed it off to the limits, as he faced just one break point all match and simply broke serve or broke-then-held to seal each set. That encounter was probably the closest thing to perfection that the ATP has ever witnessed, and any player – even Nole - would surely have fallen to its supremacy.

Yet there was a visible drop in standard from Roger's end of the court on finals day. The bulletproof serve that had seen him soar all tournament was simply inconsistent. And once again, Novak Djokovic brought out his stuff when it mattered most.
He may have squeaked out a miracle second set tiebreak – even saving set points – but after an up-and-down Roger dropped the third set, the match was all but over.

After a less-competitive fourth set, the trophy was Novak's once more. While Federer played a decent final, it was nothing on his previous performances. Djokovic was brilliant, but all in all, Roger's offerings were a head-scratching shame.

And so, we herald the US Open. Flushing Meadows looms ahead, and for the second year running, Novak and Roger top the field – by form and ranking alike.

Novak may have owned the year, making all three of the previous major finals and triumphing in two of them, but the last two weeks have finally seen him looking fatigued. After making the finals in Masters 1000 events Montreal and Cincinnati, he flailed to losses in both.

Technically, this suggests that US Open glory is lined up for Federer. Consider it: A tired Djokovic. A top 2 ranking. Brilliant form. Recent success.

However, we cannot guarantee anything with Roger Federer. Last season's Flushing Meadows was the first time in years he was favourite for Slam victory off grass-courts, and it took a single match for his whole game to disintegrate.

The problem is certainly not with his talent, his quality, or his physical efforts. It's with his timing of form. And while his age has brought a new vulnerability to nerves, only Roger can really answer the question of why these stumbles occur. And only he can find the solution.

What are his chances at the US Open? Massive. If Roger can sustain his faultless performances up until the closure of championship point, then however inspired his opponents are, and whoever they might be, his first Grand Slam since 2012 could well be on the records.

His most lethal opponent right now is not Novak Djokovic. It's himself.

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