In his quarterfinal battle under the lights at the U.s. Open against Blake, Federer should have wrapped up the first set comfortably. Serving at 5-4, he double faulted to trail 15-30, worked his way back to 30-30, but missed his trademark inside-out forehand for 30-40. Then Blake pressured Federer into a forehand mistake, and it was 5-5.
Blake took that set into a tie-break and, once more, Federer inexplicably squandered a big lead. Serving at 4-1 in that breaker, Federer took his foot off the accelerator, driving a routine forehand into the net for 4-2, missing a relatively easy crosscourt backhand on the next point. Blake responded with a pair of aggressive service points, and when the American produced a stinging return of serve that eventually set up an overhead winner, he held a 6-4, double set point lead. Both players were fully aware that Blake needed this set much more than Federer, and perhaps that weighed too heavily on the American’s mind. Federer saved the first set point with a well disguised wide slice serve for an ace.
It was Blake’s turn to serve at 6-5. He was much too cautious, going for a three-quarter pace first serve to the backhand that Federer handled with ease. Blake lost that critical point when he steered a defensive sliced forehand long. He had his third and last set point with Federer serving at 6-7 but squandered that one when he netted a backhand down the line return off a kick serve. Federer— on a run of three consecutive points— sealed that set. The elegant Swiss shot maker swept majestically through the second set and seemed certain to cast aside Blake in straight sets.
At 5-3 in the third set, Federer served for the match, and was two points away from the triumph at 30-30. But he made yet another forehand unforced error and then Blake unleashed a spectacular forehand pass for 5-5. In the third set tie-break, Federer reached match point but Blake released a scintillating backhand down the line winner and went on to win the set.
When Federer raced to 5-1 in the fourth set, he seemed to finally have matters well in hand, but an inspired Blake made one last brilliant run. Sweeping three games in a row, breaking Federer in the eighth game with a pair of superb forehand return placements, a highly charged Blake was soaring. With Federer serving for the match a second time at 5-4, Blake saved two more match points and earned a break point. Federer kicked his second served up high to Blake’s backhand, and the American tried yet another non-percentage topspin backhand return down the line, missing it wide. Federer soon closed out the contest 7-6 (7), 6-0, 6-7 (9), 6-4.
The moral of the story? A quietly apprehensive Federer found a way to win on an evening when he was not at the height of his powers, in a match where he never completely found his rhythm. Meanwhile, Blake— who had moved into the top five in the world over the summer for the first time in his career— was not up to the task of bringing Federer down when the chances were there.
His backhand return on the big points cost him dearly. He should have chipped or rolled it crosscourt instead of going for so many difficult down the line shots. Blake played well enough to win against a largely off-form Federer, but made some bad decisions at big moments. He could not have confronted a more vulnerable Federer, but wasted a significant opportunity. Blake has made important progress in 2006 but he needs to do a better job of closing out matches. At the Masters Series event in Madrid, he served for the match against Kristof Vliegen but once again did not close the account.