U.S. Open Aftermath

U.S. Open Aftermath

What is there left to say about Roger Federer? He wins a fourth U.S. Open in a row, the first man ever to realize that considerable feat. John McEnroe (1979-81) and Ivan Lendl (1985-87) captured three in a row but now Federer stands alone. Add that to the fact that the 26-year-old has swept five Wimbledon titles in a row, and you see that Federer has dominated at the two biggest tournaments in a five year span as no modern player has before. He has elevated his total of major titles to 12, only two away from a tie with Pete Sampras for most Grand Slam championships. And for the third time in four years, he has garnered three of the four major titles. He will undoubtedly break the Sampras record, probably in 2009.

But Federer was not as mighty or majestic as he has been in the past at the Open. His final round triumph over my pre-tournament pick Novak Djokovic was marked by admirable play under pressure, but that match was lost as much by the 20-year-old Serbian as it was won by Federer. Consider the facts. Djokovic breaks for a 6-5 first set lead, serves for the set in the twelfth game, and soars to 40-0 with an ace. He is at triple set point, on the verge of going one set up against the world No. 1 in the final of a major championship. Djokovic suddenly realizes what is at stake.

He allows Federer to get a crack at an easy forehand, which Roger rips into the corner for a clean winner. Federer then chips two backhand returns with good depth into the wind, and the growing nervousness of Djokovic is evident. He makes a pair of unforced errors. It is deuce. Twice more, Djokovic serves his way to set point, but he does not convert. Five set points have gone by the wayside. Djokovic is rattled. He serves a double fault at break point down and Federer is back to 6-6. In the tie-break, Djokovic gets the mini-break for 3-2 but then nets an easy backhand. He smacks his racket on the court, disgusted with letting another opportunity slip from his grasp. Federer sweeps four of the next five points to seize the set.

On they move to the second set. A surprisingly composed Djokovic, determined to make amends for his first set failure, moves ahead 4-1 in the second set, reaches deuce on Federer’s serve in the sixth game and seems within striking distance of reaching one set all. Federer, ever resolute, has other ideas. He holds on for 2-4, breaks at love, gets back even at 4-4. But at 5-6, the world No. 1 drifts to 15-40 on serve. Djokovic is back in business, or seemingly so. Federer crunches an ace down the T to save the first set point, but Djokovic makes a solid forehand return on the second. He lines up a forehand, cracks it deep, and the ball is called out. Djokovic challenges the call, and waits for the big Hawk-Eye image to go up on the stadium screen.

When the replay is done, it shows that the ball is just a whisker long, as close as it gets. Federer has escaped from another dangerous corner. He holds on, then plays a superb tie-break, not missing a first serve in four attempts, picking Djokovic apart when the Serbian serves. Set to Federer 7-2 in the tie-break. Two sets to love for the Swiss. He still is not at the top of his game or entirely confident. At 2-2 in the third, he is 0-40 down. Djokovic must exploit the opening. He does not. Federer goes on to complete a 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2), 6-4 victory, breaking Djokovic in the final game of the match.

To be sure, this was a triumph for experience over youth, for an all-time great player appearing in his 14th major final over a 20-year-old making his debut in the final of a Grand Slam event. Federer was immensely poised under pressure, giving nothing away in the tight corners, making Djokovic beat him. Djokovic cracked when the chips were on the line; it was as simple as that. He understandably could not handle the situation. It was not beating Federer that weighed on his mind so heavily; he had done that the previous time they met in the final of Montreal.

No, it was the occasion that got to Djokovic as much as the recognition that he was getting close to being in a position to win his first major championship. But his post-match comments indicated that Djokovic fully understood what had happened, knowing that he has clammed up in different ways, sometimes going for too much on big points, sometimes playing with too much caution. I thought he was ready to win this tournament after the significant progress he made over the course of 2007. He has won two Masters Series events, and he had already made it to two semifinals at the Grand Slam events. As it turned out, he was not quite ready in New York. But he will win a major in 2008; I have no doubt about that.

As for Federer, where does he go from here? Of this much I am convinced: he can’t sustain the astounding pace he has set. He has won 11 of the last 16 Grand Slam tournaments since the start of 2004. I can’t see him winning more than two majors next year with Nadal still the King of Clay and a major presence elsewhere, and Djokovic now a strong No. 3 in the world closing the gap seriously between himself and the top two men. Don’t get me wrong. Federer has a lot of winning left to do. But the evidence of this year strongly suggests that it is getting tougher for the 26-year-old to dominate at the big events. Having Djokovic in the mix changes the picture significantly.

Meanwhile, what should we expect from Andy Roddick? He is in a serious bind. The American encouraged his boosters in 2006 when he reached the final of the U.S. Open, playing a good match against Federer. This year, for the first time since 2002 Roddick did not appear in a Grand Slam final. He remains a formidable player who could stay in the top ten in the world for a long time, and frequently take his place among the top five. But his chances to win more majors may be few and far between. At the Open, Roddick played with all of his heart and resolve against Federer in the quarters, and did not lose his serve for two sets. He did not even face a break point.

Where did that get him? He lost 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-2. Roddick has never found a way to stop Federer in tie-breaks, and once more that was his undoing in defeat. The one and only time Roddick beat Federer—in the semifinals at Montreal four years ago— he prevailed in a final set tie-break. That was also the only time Roddick has taken a tie-break from Federer. He now stands 1-10 against the Swiss in career tie-breaks. He simply does not return well enough, and Federer has a knack for coming up with outstanding returns against Roddick in those tie-breaks when he needs to.

In any event, Roddick will remain determined. He will give himself every possible chance to succeed. But he will be hard pressed to win another major title. He will always have a shot at the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. But he has problems that go well beyond Federer. Djokovic is a fundamentally better player, and he will have his hands full with many top players including Nadal, Djokovic, Nikolay Davydenko, David Ferrer, James Blake, Richard Gasquet and Tommy Haas. Even if Roddick had beaten Federer at the U.S. Open, I believe he would have lost the final to Djokovic.

Henin’s Validation

At Wimbledon, fresh from her fourth triumph at Roland Garros, seemingly ready to round out her record with a first ever crown at Wimbledon, Justine Henin suffered a shocking loss to Marion Bartoli in the semifinals. Henin did not play until Toronto deep into August, winning that event over Jelena Jankovic. Henin came into New York as the favorite to win the U.S. Open, but some doubts surrounded her after her Wimbledon collapse against Bartoli. But Henin set the record entirely straight at the U.S. Open and won her second title on the hard courts at Flushing Meadows.

Henin did not drop a set in the tournament, becoming the first woman since Serena Williams in 2002 to realize that feat. She went through a difficult draw, eclipsing Serena Williams in the quarterfinals, downing Venus Williams in the semifinals, then accounting for 2004 U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the championship match. The 25-year-old Belgian had every reason to be proud of herself for her play against both of the Williams sisters.

Against Serena, Henin served for the first set at 5-4, squandered a set point, lost her serve, and then had to save a set point at 5-6. Thereafter, Henin was magnificent, winning 7-6 (3), 6-1. The pattern against Venus was much the same. Henin led 5-4,40-15, tightened up, lost her serve, but then prevailed 7-6 (2), 6-4. She came through in Ashe Stadium with the crowd vociferously supporting first Serena and then Venus. In that climate, under those circumstances, with so many people cheering unabashedly for her opponents, Henin was terrific. She then easily took apart a discombobulated Kuznetsova 6-1, 6-3 for her seventh major title and second U.S. Open crown.

Henin stands only one major behind Serena Williams, and has moved one ahead of Venus Williams. She is building an enviable record. There is no reason why she should not end up with at least 10 majors in her collection. In 2008, she will have a good chance at all of the majors, and should come away with two more Grand Slam titles, perhaps winning Wimbledon for the first time to round out her record. The only thing holding her back is the potential for more injuries and viruses, her twin enemies from the past. But Henin has been so smart with her scheduling these last couple of years that she should be able to perform prodigiously for at least two more years, and maybe beyond that.

The Williams sisters both won majors against the odds this year, and that might well happen again in 2008. But they remain perplexing individuals. Serena was clearly unlucky to miss so much time over the summer with a lingering thumb injury, and she was always going to be hard pressed to play well at the Open. Venus was better prepared for the Open but complained about dizziness during the second set of her loss to Henin. These two outstanding athletes will confound us as long as they remain in the game.

2 Responses

  1. Lloyd

    I’m not so sure Djokovic will win a major in 2008 because I think he’s slightly below top-class. At the moment, there’s a dearth of quality below Federer. Nadal at his top is certainly able to expose the very few weaknesses in Fed’s game but Rafa only seems to be physically at his peak for a few weeks a year. I think he’ll become less of a contender as his body (and perhaps his will) becomes more and more subject to wear and tear.

    Djokovic’s two-hander is brittle and liable to break down under pressure, as we saw in the USO Final. His two hands don’t work as a single unit in the way the (very few) great 2HB’s do. In fact, it’s remarkable how rarely it is that double-handers are stronger on the backhand than on the forehand. Ever since Jimmy Connors began the trend, it’s become almost the norm that doublehanders have huge forehands and merely subsidiary backhands. I think it’s only the fact that it’s a lot easier to combine a two-hander with a western forehand that has continued the fashion. The single-hander has come back in a big way and I think the extra flexibility of the shot will magnify the trend.

    A little-noticed fact about Justine Henin is that of her last seven slams she has won every one in which she had the week off before the slam and lost every one in which she played a tournament the week before. She simply can’t sustain three weeks in a row, given her mental intensity. In fact, when she played Eastbourne this year and won a long Final against Mauresmo I predicted that she’d come apart in the second week of Wimbledon. And so it proved.

    She’s only ever once won a slam when playing the week before: the 2004 Australian Open. However, that was a little unusual as she only had to play three matches in the warmup due to Lindsay Davenport’s forfeit in the semi-final. So she was relatively fresh going in. If, however, she persists in playing Eastbourne I can’t see her winning Wimbledon unless she loses early in the warmup.

    Frankly, Henin only seems to lose when she’s physically underpar. When she’s fresh she’s close to invincible but she seems to lack the confidence to go into a slam without match-practice. I can’t see why; she won the 2004 Olympics without a match in months and repeated this at the 2006 WTA Championships. She plays remarkably well when fresh.

  2. Lloyd

    Just to clarify my comment about “ever since Jimmy Connors began the trend”, I meant the trend towards two-handed backhands, not the one where the forehand was stronger than the two-hander. Connors’ 2HB was of course considerably stronger than his backhand.