Federer Wins Fourth US Open

22:48 Sun 09 Sep 2007. Updated: 00:40 02 Feb 2009
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As expected, Roger Federer today won his fourth US Open title in a row, his twelfth Grand Slam title, his eleventh Grand Slam title in four years. He won in straight sets (7-6 (4), 7-6 (2), 6-4), and yet the victory seemed somehow quite unimpressive. Federer seemed off his game for large stretches of the match.

Novak Djokovic, on the other hand, started well, and didn’t seem to really be showing nerves. He had the first break, and served for the first set at 6-5—and was 40-love up. But Federer got back to deuce, and then fended off a further two set points against him. Did Djokovic choke, or did Federer force the break, simply by effort of will and ability? It seemed that way, watching. It seemed as if Federer simply decided enough was enough, but that he could only do this at the truly critical times.

I think this is an illusion. That’s not to say Djokovic choked. Federer did clearly move his game up a notch, while his opponent wasn’t able to do the same. The key is that Djokovic had the opportunity. If he had raised his game, as the server he would more or less guarantee victory in the set. Federer said as much in the post-match interview:

Q. When you were down in the first set, what did you try to focus on? What went through your mind at that moment, down 40–Love

ROGER FEDERER: I thought he was going to serve another big serve and I would be out of the set really. At this point you have no hope. It’s obvious, you know. However, you hope if a couple points go your way early on and you get back to 40–30 he could get a little bit nervous. It’s a Grand Slam, after all. But you don’t think too much because it goes too fast. Yeah, not much.

Despite thinking himself out of the set at that point, Federer managed to hang around… and hang around… and hang around until he had saved five set points on Djokovic’s serve. And then Djokovic double-faulted on break point to bring on the tiebreaker. Which Federer naturally won.

At that point, I really thought Federer would turn up the heat and finish it off. But from love-15 in the first game (Djokovic serving), Federer made three unforced errors to just give the game away, and Novak regained his confidence. Regained it enough to go 4-1 up, no small feat, and no small demonstration of mental strength, either, having lost the first set in such painful fashion.

Federer turned up his game again to level the set, but was eventually two set points down again serving at 4-5, 15-40. He came up with the requisite big serves to get out of it, and then ran away with the tiebreaker again.

Yet again, I thought that would be all of it, that Federer would maintain the level of play he’d shown in the tiebreakers and close it out. But he didn’t, and the third set went on serve until Djokovic was serving at 4-5. Then Federer broke him to win the whole thing.

Strange to watch. Federer seems to simply drift out of matches quite often. Then he snaps back and plays sublime tennis. This time, he played some sublime tennis, but more of it was just solid tennis, putting just enough pressure on Djokovic to let him crack.

I can’t tell if Federer is getting worse, less able to consistently play at that unbelievable level that he’s capable of, or if he’s getting more crafty, conserving his energy, not hitting the high level unless he really needs it.

Is that reading unfair to his opponents? Tennis is a two-person game, and if one player isn’t playing well, the other player often has a lot to do with it (see, for example, the Williams sisters when they play Justine Henin…). I wonder, because watching this final reminded me of both the Wimbledon and the French finals this year. In both of those matches, it seemed the Federer was drifting along and could turn it up almost at will. I say “almost” because he lost the French, and was probably close to losing control of the Wimbledon match also. Of course, especially at the French, his opponent was causing a lot of his difficulty.

I think that’s still one of the mysteries of the game, the question of how much of it is psychological strength and weakness—as opposed to how much of it we decide to call “psychological strength/weakness” afterwards as part of our narrative-construction tendencies. That’s true for other sports (and for many other parts of life, also), but tennis seems like an exemplary crucible for raising the question.

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