U.S. Open Report
The U.S. Open ended a week ago, and I am still trying to digest it all, to put it in perspective in my mind, to write about it with some clarity and vision. To be sure, this was the biggest win in many ways of Roger Federer’s career. He had not won a major in all of 2008, and this was his last chance. He had won only 2 of the 14 events he had played across the season, and those triumphs were in relatively minor events at Estoril on the clay and Halle on the grass. He had not even won a Masters Series event over the course of this year.
On the other hand, Federer had been a consistent force as usual at the majors. He reached the semifinals of the Australian Open in January, and was runner-up to Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. At Wimbledon, he struck back boldly and brilliantly from two sets to love down and a 3-3,0-40 predicament in the third set to force the contest into a thrilling fifth set. Federer was two points away from completing an astounding comeback with Nadal serving at 4-5 in the final set. That match could have turned his year around in a hurry, and it would have been a bruising defeat for Nadal, who had lost an agonizing five set, Centre Court showdown with Federer in the 2007 final.
But once Federer lost that battle on the edge of darkness in arguably the greatest match ever played, he went into a severe tailspin. Across the summer, Gilles Simon upset Federer in his opening round assignment at Toronto. Then Ivo Karlovic ousted Federer in a final set tie-break at Cincinnati after the Swiss maestro won only one match there. And finally, James Blake beat Federer in the quarterfinals of the Olympics in Beijing.
That string of defeats clearly made Federer apprehensive as he approached the Open. In all four of his previous winning campaigns— from 2004-2007— he had won at least one hard court tournament over the summer leading up to the big event in New York. And in all of those years he had been the sport’s dominant figure. This time around, circumstances were very different. He had no significant tournament wins to his credit during the year, and his No. 1 world ranking had been taken away over the summer by the redoubtable Nadal. For that wide range of reasons, I believed Federer would not capture a fifth consecutive Open championship.
In the third round of the Open, Federer was stretched to five arduous sets by Igor Andreev, the No. 23 seed from Russia who has one of the bigger forehands in the game and a potent first serve to boot. Andreev won the first set and took Federer into a tie-break in the second. Federer served with a 6-3 lead in that tie-break but lost the next two points on his serve. Andreev was back on serve at 5-6, but his forehand passing shot bounded off the net cord and landed wide. Set to Federer, who eventually came through in a nerve-wracking fifth set.
That was the turning point of the tournament. In the semifinals, Federer stopped No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic in four sets and he halted Andy Murray— the No. 6 seed— in a straight set, final round contest. Federer clearly rose to this occasion and played his finest tennis of the season in the last two rounds against quality opposition. He thus garnered another historical achievement of the highest order, becoming the first male or female to win two different Grand Slam events five years in a row. He now has 13 majors and stands only one behind the all-time men’s leader Pete Sampras.
For Nadal, the U.S. Open was a disappointing stretch. He had won eight of his previous ten tournaments— including Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the Olympics— as he headed to New York for the last Grand Slam event of 2008, and Nadal was unmistakably exhausted. He had given so much of himself along the way that he simply could not rouse himself one more time. His intensity was sharply diminished throughout the event. Although he made it to his first semifinal at Flushing Meadows, he was never quite himself. Murray— who had already upended the surging Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarters— defeated Nadal for the first time in six career meetings. In that four set duel, Murray played some of the best tennis of his life to prevail.
And so Federer was fortunate not to be facing a man who owned a 12-6 career head-to-head edge over him. Moreover, Nadal is 4-0 against Federer in 2008. Plainly, Federer would have liked his chances better on the hard courts at the Open, and the argument can be made that Nadal remains most vulnerable on faster hard courts. But he did not have what he needed to get to the title round, and Federer cannot be blamed for that. Federer has only a remote chance to overtake Nadal for the year-end No. 1 ranking, but his U.S. Open triumph will undoubtedly carry him into 2009 with a much greater sense of inner conviction and stability.
As for the women, Serena Williams was as worthy a winner as she has ever been. She had lost the Wimbledon final to her sister Venus after fully expecting to claim that crown. She had played top notch tennis over the first half of 2008 on the faster surfaces. And this time around in New York, she threw her entire heart and soul into coming away with a third U.S. Open and ninth career Grand Slam tournament crown. As has often been the case in her past championship runs at majors, Serena was a masterful player in clutch situations.
In her quarterfinal confrontation against Venus Williams under the lights, she saved two set points and then in the second Serena saved eight more to record a dramatic 7-6 (6), 7-6 (7) victory. Venus often had the upper hand in this match. Her ground game was more consistently potent, and she dictated more than her share of fiercely contested backcourt exchanges. But Serena won for three primary reasons: her forehand is a more solid stroke, her second serve is superior, and she plays better defense than Venus across the board.
Serena—fueled by that win— cast aside an error prone Dinara Safina in a straight set semifinal, and then played another hard fought contest against No. 2 seed Jelena Jankovic in the final. Jankovic was always under duress in the first set before Serena closed it out 6-4. But in the second set, the Serbian exploited her extraordinary ball control and her incomparable defensive skills to build a significant lead. Serena found herself serving at 3-5, 0-40, triple set point down—but the 26-year-old American was outstanding in a tight corner once more. She did not miss a first serve on any of the three set points, and took control of the points emphatically, never giving Jankovic much of an opening.
Williams held on for 4-5 and reached 0-40 with Jankovic serving in the tenth game. Jankovic— ever the opportunist— fought her way back and had a set point. Had she held there, had she made Serena play a third set, had she rewarded herself for all her hard effort— Jankovic might well have gone on to post a three set victory. But she double faulted long, and Williams broke back for 5-5. The last two games contained some of the highest quality tennis of the match, but Serena was too tough when it counted, completing a run of four straight games for a 6-4, 7-5 win. That triumph took Serena back to No. 1 in the world, a status she last held in August of 2003. That is where she belongs, and the hope here is that she will work exceedingly hard to stay up there and keep collecting big prizes in the years ahead.
Federer and Williams have done it again. Can anyone seriously say they did not deserve their high honors?