Aug/10

23

Four Play

Hindsight is 20/20 for the masses. Foresight may be 2012 for Roger Federer. Following back-to-back quarterfinal losses at Roland Garros and Wimbledon to players he once treated like the human target in his William Tell trick-shot video, Federer launched his US Open Series sending a message to the rest of the pack: he’s targeting 20 career Grand Slam titles and regaining the World No. 1 ranking. Public proclamations are like second serves on break points: they only stand up when you deliver with decisive action.

Federer talked the talk in Toronto last week and the man in pink laid out the tactical blue print for backing up his bold claims in Cincinnati today.

In a high-quality clash that featured just one break of serve in the second-to-last game, Federer fought back for a 6-7(5), 7-6(1), 6-4 win over willful wild card Mardy Fish to successfully defend his Western Southern Financial Group Masters crown and solidify his status as a front-runner for the US Open, which begins on August 30th.

“I’ve been playing well the past couple weeks, and today was just another proof that I’m playing really well,” Federer said. “I thought I played an excellent match today. I had huge belief that I was going to win today from the first point until the end. That sometimes can make a bit of a difference.”

Cincinnati is not always a precursor for productivity in New York, but given the fact a Cincinnati finalist has gone on to win the US Open or reach the US Open final for seven straight years, Federer, a student of tennis history, will arrive in Flushing Meadows next week flying higher than the Statue of Liberty’s torch.

The third-seeded Swiss captured his fourth Cincinnati championship in the last six years (he defeated Andy Roddick in the 2005 final, beat James Blake in the ’07 final and topped Novak Djokovic in the ’09 final) and joins Mats Wilander (1983-84, ’86, ’88) as the only men in the Open Era to win four titles in the Queen City. Contesting his 90th career final, Federer captured his 63rd career title.

“I think it was a close match. Could have gone either way,” Federer said. “I had a tough moment staring at one set down and break point in the second set. You think you’re playing a good match, but you might lose 6 and 4. I hung tough and made him work hard and was able to come across the finish line faster than him.”

At this stage of his career, Federer is motivated by more than his pursuit of arch rival Rafael Nadal and his desire to maintain ranking supremacy over Andy Murray, who swept Federer, 7-5, 7-5, in last Sunday’s Toronto final to successfully defend the Rogers Cup.

Every title is another step up the rung of the legacy ladder and in collecting his 63rd title Federer ties Bjorn Borg for fifth place on the Open Era all time list.

Who’s next? Pete Sampras is No. 4 with 64 titles, a mark Federer could equal if he can win the US Open next month.

Well aware of his historic pace in averaging more than two Grand Slam titles a year for six consecutive years, Federer should enter the Open as the favorite, ahead of Nadal and Murray, to reach his seventh straight Flushing Meadows final. If he could win his second major title of the season in New York, he’d be on course to complete his target goal of 20 by 2012.

This title is meaningful because in moving forward into the court and employing his fine net skills, Federer is effectively giving opponents a sneak peek at the style of play he plans to produce in New York. Serving with authority (Federer entered the final having held in 24 of 25 service games and did not drop serve today) and unleashing his all-court skills more this week than he has at any other point in the season, Federer showed flashes of the full-throttle tennis that plays well on the Deco Turf drag strip that is Arthur Ashe Stadium court.

Working with Sampras’ former coach, Paul Annacone, on a trial basis Federer spent part of his six-week break after his Wimbledon loss to Tomas Berdych trying to remedy a return game he felt floundering from excessive caution and figuring out how to exploit his net skills without resorting solely to serve-and-volley tennis.

“I was not returning very well the last year or so,” Federer said after his 6-4, 6-3 semifinal win over Marcos Baghdatis in which he did not face a break point. “Especially at the end of last year, I was sort of very safe and I was not reading the players as much. The six-week break after Wimbledon gave me a bit of time to work on a few things on the hard courts. It’s nice to play forward as opposed to letting the other guy dictate.”

Certainly, the luck of the draw was with Federer this week. His first-round opponent, Denis Istomin, retired after seven games of play, round of 16 opponent Philipp Kohlschreiber conceded a walkover, Federer hit 12 aces and dropped serve just once in a 6-4, 7-5 quarterfinal conquest of Nikolay Davydenko and did not even play five full sets to reach the final. But Federer was more than fortunate, he was opportunistic in becoming the first man to repeat as Cincinnati champ since Andre Agassi in 1995 and 1996.

At 4-all, 30-all, Fish lifted a forehand long, giving Federer the lone break point of the third set.

Working the Fish forehand over, Federer pounced on a hip-high ball a few feet inside the baseline and reversed the direction of the rally, ripping his forehand inside out. A scrambling Fish put a stretch backhand into net and Federer had the break and a 5-4 advantage.

Attacking behind an another inside-out forehand, Federer earned a 30-15 edge followed by a slicing service winner. Fish saved one championship point, but on the second succumbed to the pressure imposed by Federer’s feet in steering a backhand down the line wide.

It is his 17th Masters Series shield, which ties him with Agassi for second place on the all-time list behind Nadal, who beat Federer in the Madrid final to collect his 18th Masters Series shield.

A focused Fish entered the final on a 16-1 tear since July, collecting consecutive championships on the grass in Newport (beating Olivier Rochus in a three-set final) and on the hard courts of Atlanta where he fought back from a one-set deficit to edge John Isner in a third-set tie breaker.

“I feel great. I’ve done some things that I’ve never done before,” said Fish, who hit 17 aces and saved four of five break points. “I’ll be able to put this match in perspective very shortly. It’s a great tournament. It’s as well as I’ve played. I played well today; he played well today. It was a pretty high level, I thought, for the most part.”

A flying Fish forehand caromed off the top of the tape and sailed long, giving Federer break point in the 11th game.

Typically, that’s the time of match when guys ranked outside the top 30 wake up and realize they might not actually believe they should be in that spot in the first place.Fish had no time for self-doubt in delivering a 133 mph dart into the corner of the box — his eighth ace — to erase it. Two points later, Fish fired his ninth ace for 6-5.

Neither player produced separation in the tie breaker. Fish pressed the issue in the third-set tie break of his win against Murray earlier this week and again attacked at 4-4. But he did not do enough with a backhand volley meant to go down the line. Off the mark quickly, Federer fired a forehand pass down the line. His 10th forehand winner of the set gave Federer a mini-break, a 5-4 lead and a shot to serve out the set.

Fish denied Andy Roddick’s efforts to serve out the semifinal on Saturday and showed more resistance today. Fish played an ambitious point, using a drop volley to send up a fine smash for 5-5.

A slightly tight Federer nudged a nervous backhand into net handing Fish a set point at 6-5.

Without a trace of trepidation, Fish whipped a 124 stinger off the service line, snaring three straight points to collect the first set.

“I was positive all the way through because I felt I was playing well, even though I lost the first set,” Federer said. “So I never got down on myself and doubted myself. I think that reflected in the game as well.”

You can argue that Federer’s beating Baghdatis, who snapped an 0-for-lifetime record against Federer by beating him in Indian Wells in March before eradicating his career-long streak of futility beating Nadal in Friday night’s quarterfinals, and the red-hot Fish back-to-back in Cincy in best-of-three set matches is not nearly as arduous an assignment as potentially trying to beat Murray and Nadal in succession to win the US Open next month.

And you’d be right in making that case, but for Federer there is no downsizing the importance of this title. Since sweeping Murray to win his 16th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January, Federer had looked a little lethargic, slightly sloppy and even cranky at times when performing the post-mortem in press conferences. He had lost three straight finals — to Nadal in Madrid, Lleyton Hewitt in Halle and Murray in Toronto — and was trying to avoid the first four-final losing streak of his career against an opponent who had handled him, 6-3, 6-2, in their last meeting in the 2008 Indian Wells semifinals.

The 29-year-old Federer spent part of his sabbatical on a family cruise in the Mediterranean, but wasn’t exactly adrift in a sea of uncertainty when formulating a plan to address his post-Melbourne malaise. Champions by nature are stubborn characters willing to down shift into deeper desire when they come to the late career cross roads or pursue alternative paths when logical roadblocks like advancing age and increasing playing mileage inevitably crop up on the career road (see Agassi playing the best tennis of his life after 30 or Sampras snapping a two-year title drought to win the 2002 US Open).

So Federer’s efforts to retool rather than resign himself as following Nadal in the rankings race for the rest of the foreseeable future are fascinating to follow because history shows us few men have reloaded and won multiple majors after doing so.

He turns tournament tennis into collection into auditing sessions— Federer is fond of referring to pre-major tournament matches as “information gathering” exercises, so what did we glean from the completed Masters Series weeks in Toronto and Cincinnati?

Here’s how we see the usual suspects standing eight days removed from opening day at the Open:

Rafael Nadal — The world’s best player turned title bouts into tutorials on dispensing punishment in a championship stretch that saw him win five of six tournaments —Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid, Roland Garros and Wimbledon — before he started his US Open Series in Toronto. Based on the totality of the beat downs Nadal gave Soderling in the French Open final and Berdych in the Wimbledon final, he emerged as odds-on favorite to win the US Open, complete the career Grand Slam and become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open championships simultaneously.

But in losses to Murray in the Toronto semifinals and Baghdatis in Cincy, Nadal looks more like the guy who endured an 11-month title drought than he does the Flushing Meadows favorite.

Things happen quickly in tennis. Remember the euphoria surrounding Murray’s run to the Melbourne final when many were touting him as the next No. 1 after he bounced defending champion Nadal out of the tournament? The fact is Nadal has not won a hard-court title since the 2009 Indian Wells and looked as capable of adjusting to quick Cincinnati court conditions as a commuter trying to catch up to speeding cab. Julien Benneteau does not serve as big as Boris Becker, but Nadal could not consistently hit deep returns in that match, resorted to chipping his backhand and basically bluffed his way through the second set, saving a match point playing defense and waiting for the Frenchman to crack.

If, as ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert suggests, Nadal’s return issues are rooted in the fact he simply doesn’t have enough time to make the extreme grip change required as the serve approaches the box, then he’s got to consider adjusting because in Cincinnati Nadal was consistently hurting hanging mid-court returns.

Then there’s the fact Nadal has absorbed his worst Grand Slam beatings on hard courts in the last two years: Juan Martin del Potro rushed the methodical Mallorcan right off the court, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2, in the US Open semifinals last September and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga made the muscular Mallorcan looked small in a 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 win in the 2008 Australian Open semifinals.

The good news for Nadal is both del Potro and Tsonga have pulled out of the Open, he’s got a week with Uncle Toni to work on some solutions to his return issues and typically his footwork is more precise when his Uncle is on site and New York fans figure to provide vocal support as Nadal aims for his first US Open final.

Federer painting by John Murwaski. To see more of Murawski’s work, please go to www.myartnsoul.blogspot.com

7 comments

  • Scoop Malinowski · August 23, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    Might have to raise that goal total to 25 after Cincy, the new aggressive forward thinking Federer looked awfully formidable. Fish was right in there though. The Fed serve down the T really worked well down the stretch. Fish has to be considered a top contender to win the Open also.

  • Dan Markowitz · August 23, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    Nice, comprehensive piece, Rich. It does look like Federer is the favorite to win the US Open. I didn’t see the final with Fish, but for Fed to reach two finals in two Masters events in two weeks is good. Although, I am surprised that Fish gave him so much trouble. I asked Spadea about what he thinks about Fish, and he’s impressed, but he says Fish’s game is limited. He doesn’t do anything great: he doesn’t move great, he doesn’t serve, hit his forehand or volley great, but at the same time, Vince (who was hitting with Djokovic today)thought Fish could semi at the Open or even reach the finals.

    Murray or a re-charged Djokovic, and you can never count Nadal out against Fed, are realistically the only players who could beat Fedat the Open. Maybe Roddick in a long shot. So Fed looks stronger coming into this Open then he has in the last two years.

  • Tom Michael · August 23, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    Winning Cincinnati was great by Federer; however, I must criticize him for needing three sets. Federer had a first round bye, a first set retirement by his opponent in the second round, a walkover in the third, and then he really started to play the tournament. Fish on the other hand had to play from the first round and on. For Federer to need three sets to win the final against a more spent opponent, is not a sign of an overwhelming favorite to win New York. He is one of several favorites. To me, the US Open is wide open, and the result is going to be draw-dependent.

  • Scoop Malinowski · August 24, 2010 at 12:15 am

    Dan, Is The Vince in NY now? Did he give any report on Djokovic’s game and mentality? Big disappointment to lose to Roddick the way he did. Djokovic if he can get back to his best, is a huge threat, would love to see him flying high again but it might not happen. He doesn’t seem to want it bad enough. One slam might be good enough for him.

  • vinko · August 24, 2010 at 2:30 am

    Although at 29 Fed still looks like he can win alot more, the statistics are not with him. I don’t have the record book in front of me but there haven’t been many grand slam winners over 30 in Open tennis. I think Sampras and Agassi did it once and Connors did it once or twice (he may have been 29 one of those wins). Andres Gomez won France when he was 29 or 30 and I can’t think of anyone else off hand. You can be a golf champ into your 40s but in pro tennis if you lose a fraction of a second off your speed you are toast.

  • NAME · August 24, 2010 at 2:52 am

    I pick Murray. I always pick Murray. I’m always wrong.

    My second choice is Djokovic. Unless he has to play Fed; Fed owns him at the USO. Djokovic has a lot more heart then he is given credit for. He’s not done at one slam.

    What do I want to see ? Fed v. Nadal final. Just like CBS. Just like most of the tennis watching world. It would be a real loss if they never meet at the USO.

  • Dan markowitz · August 24, 2010 at 10:39 am

    Vince is in the city. He played in pro am in hamptons and lost to arias, but he felt he got fleeced as earlier in the event he said arias and Scott Davis complained to him that he was being unprofessional by hitting too hard at amateur. He wants to come first couple of days of open, but so far has no tics, usta stiffing him. If he had gotten to quarters, he wouldn’t had 10 tics a yearifetime, but best he did was 4th round twice. I’ll ask about pressions on djoko.. Thinks fish willows in first week, burnt out.

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