Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Roger Federer def. Andy Murray 6-2, 7-5, 6-2.

On Monday Roger Federer became the first man to win 5 straight US Opens since "Big" Bill Tilden in the 1920s (he said the 1920s!). That's pretty heady stuff, and puts Federer back on track to surpass Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles (Federer's now at 13). It also saves his year and re-establishes Federer at the top of his game, halting the penstrokes of various sportswriters in the midst of writing his obituary.

If you're looking for objective analysis of the final you'll have to move on; nothing to see here. I was incapable of watching this match from anything other than a fanboy perspective. The first set you almost had to spot Federer; Murray was clearly tight in his first Grand Slam final appearance, and Federer came out with guns blazing. The second set was a hard fought affair and could/should have been tighter had Murray gotten the break that he deserved (TV replays confirmed one of Federer's shots was out on break point). Once Federer broke at 6-5 and served it out, the match was effectively over. Federer was able to fully relax and went into full-out attack mode, while the air went out of Murray. The set was not even as close as the scoreline, 6-2.

So then, how did Federer turn it around and get back to his vintage form, when Jim Courier stated that Federer was still recovering from mono and a step slow, even in this tournament? It's a good question; I'm not sure myself. The biggest difference between the dominant Federer of the past 4 years and the shaky Federer of the past 4 months has been his forehand. That shot was absolutely lethal; Federer could hit a winner from anywhere on court with it. No less an authority than John McEnroe deemed it the "biggest weapon in the history of the sport". This year though, Federer had been misfiring from that side, and the critics came out en masse. "His confidence is shot", "He needs to use a bigger racket" (Federer plays with the smallest racket head on tour, at 90 sq inches), and others. I thought an entry from his post-match presser proved illuminating:

Q. An argument could be made that you had the mono early on and it's taken you all this time really to fully recover. Do you think that's possible?

ROGER FEDERER: Possibly. I mean, I didn't feel like I was moving all that great still, you know, for the last couple of months. I thought it was okay, you know. I think I was okay on clay and on grass. Then when I came back to hardcourts, I think just my coordination was missing a little bit, because first of all, I haven't played on hardcourt for a while, and usually that comes back quite automatically, without me having to force the issue. But I didn't feel like it was all that great moving, especially in Cincy and Toronto.

I think there were some good moments at times, occasionally, as well as the Olympic Games. And I think here as the tournament went on, I started to feel like I was moving better and better. I think that was a good sign for me, and that also gave me a lot of confidence being able to know I could play defense and offense, because sometimes I just had the feeling I had to play offense because my defense was just not acceptable in my standpoint.

Andy Roddick once made the observation that everyone talks about Roger's ability on offense, but defensively "he has no peer". It's really an underrated aspect of his game (still). Federer is the rubber-band man out on court, ranging wide to slice back would-be winners and stretching for balls beyond the reach of most other players. With his movement, and by extension defense, compromised by the mono, Federer felt the need to press on the forehand and started missing. The resulting losses had to have hurt his confidence, which only exacerbated the problem. However, starting with the Djokovic match, Federer moved brilliantly, and he continued that pattern into the final. I did NOT think he moved all that well against Andreev, so it's interesting that he chalks up the poor movement to the mono. It will be interesting to see if his movement stays at this level now, and how he will fare in the indoor swing.

So what's the tennis forecast going to look like heading into 2009? Will Federer return to the #1 ranking and dominate again? I do think Federer will return to the top spot, but I don't think he will dominate as he did. And this may surprise you: I think Federer's return to the top will be less a function of his own play than the decline of Rafael Nadal. I can't imagine how Nadal's managed to play so well this year given the style of play he employs. Just looking at his schedule wears me out. He's been pushing so hard for so long to get past Federer and now that he's had his golden year I think he will have a hard time sustaining that drive. Hard thing to say about Nadal, but his body has to give out at some point, right? I think Federer's main competition for 2009 is going to be Djokovic, who has the ability to win without expending a lot of energy. Looking farther ahead, I'm not buying Marin Cilic; that forehand take-back is way too busy. But keep your eye on Ernests Gulbis. I'm predicting a Top-5 future for him, and maybe more.

No comments: