I know, I know… Roger Federer is still only No. 2 inspite of having won the U.S. Open. Still, after a year in which many had written him off and some had predicted that he would not win another Grand Slam title, this victory proved that he is back and that he will be a serious contender in 2009.
There were times this summer when his fans, of whom I am one, despaired of Federer regaining his former magic. The loss to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open semifinals, early this year, did not set off any alarms . After all, he had been invincible for so many years and he was bound to stumble once or twice. The first round loss to up-and -coming Andy Murray at the Dubai Open in March was similarly disregarded. When he lost to Rafael Nadal on the slow clay courts at Roland Garros, we felt that it was only to be expected though the manner in which he was trounced was disquieting. However his loss to Nadal in an epic Wimbledon final was a stunner. On the one hand, he lost by the slimmest of margins ; on the other, he had until then owned the grass at Wimbledon, winning there five times in a row. The low point of the year was his loss to James Blake in the Olympics. For the first time, we fans, myself included, began to wonder whether he would ever scale the heights again.
Somewhere along the way , there had been reports that he was suffering from mononucleosis but his performance seemed to belie that news. Mononucleosis is a debilitating diesease and it was inconceiveable that he could play at such a high level while suffering from mono. Karen Crouse, writing in the New York Times , points out how badly mono can affect a player. In her excellent article she notes what happened to Mario Ancic of Croatia , a Top 10 player in 2006, when he contracted the disease. Not only did he have to sit out for 6 months but his ranking fell all the way down to # 85. In contrast, Federer continued to play a heavy schedule and only dropped one place to # 2. In some quarters there were doubts that Federer was really ill, that it was merely an excuse for his ‘failures’.
It’s funny how perceptions can change with a player’s fortunes. Federer had always been known for his modesty and sportsmanship. However, when he lost to Murray at Dubai and said in his post -match comments that Murray needed to be more aggressive and that he would otherwise continue to struggle for a few years, those comments were characterized as ‘ sour grapes’. In earlier years, they would have been recognized as an honest assessment.
With all that , Federer’s fans were not very sanguine about his chances at the U.S.Open particularly when he had to survive a tense five setter in the third round and his main rivals Nadal and Djokovic were cruising along. All that changed in the semifinals when Federer was masterful in disposing of Djokovic in an entertaining four setter. The old hunger and aggressiveness was apparent ( Had it ever really gone away?) and, for the first time , we had the sense that the old Roger was back. Nadal , meanwhile, was losing to Andy Murray in the other semi-final, the fast courts at Flushing Meadows his bete noire as much as the slow clay courts at Roland Garros are Federer’s nemesis. Besides, Nadal was exhausted after a jam packed schedule during which he won two majors and the Olympics.
Once Nadal was out of the picture, there was no stopping Federer’s march to the title. Andy Murray is a good young player who is still improving and , on this day, he was no match for Roger Federer. Murray gave it a try but the jitters of playing in his first Grand Slam final and facing one of the all-time greats was too much. Federer was unstoppable and the only criticism that could be leveled at him would be of his akward victory celebration. It definitely needs work. Perhaps he could study the old news photos of an exultant Bjorn Borg dropping to his knees, his face upturned to the heavens , after winning at Wimbledon.
What of the future ? Next year, Roger Federer can expect stiff competition from a rested , refreshed Nadal and the fast improving Djokovic and Murray. There are also some other youngsters who could mount a challenge. Most fans seem to think next year will be a series of face-offs between Federer and Nadal but I think it will be Djokovic who provides the stiffest competition…. if he cuts out the clowning and gets serious about his game. Nadal is unbeatable on clay but if he ever faces off against Federer in any other Grand Slam final, I think that Federer will prevail. Whatever happens, it is a good thing for mens tennis and for all tennis fans to have three or four players fighting it out for the top spot.