Roger Federer is sunk back on his chair, minus his shirt. And Arthur Ashe Stadium is now a house of whistles. About a thousand pouted lips flute out the same, ‘Hey Sexy’, double beat-tune: Pheee, phiieeeuuw. Federer, though, doesn’t seem to notice. He’s grooming back his hair, shaking his left knee, waiting for the umpire to restart proceedings.
“Time,” says the man on the high-chair. But New York City is far from ready.
Inside Ashe, spectators in faded baseball caps are still shuffling back to their top-dollar seats — sideways over a row of knees, apologising over spilling beer. Above, a passenger plane signals its squalling descent into La Guardia, the nearby airport. And just around the bend, a subway train rattles heavily on alloy rails.
Under this swollen blanket of sound, Philipp Kohlschreiber resumes the match, down a set and tied two-all in the second. He kicks up a body serve, rearing towards Federer’s backhand. The Swiss is slow to react and the ball connects the rim of his racquet, squirting into the sky. Even before it lands in one of the suites in the second-tier, a girl is up on her feet, paws in the air and yelling, ‘Rogerweeeloveyouuu!’ A wave of laughter washes the stands. 15-0.
Kohlschreiber’s 105-mile/hour first serve crashes into the net. He fetches a new ball from his pocket and curves in his slower second. But neither Kohlschreiber nor the crowd is ready for Federer’s reaction. By the time the ball bounces on the other side of the court, Federer, 34, has snuck right up to the service line. Inside-out, he whips up the ball, which is now at half-volley length, and his return, a drop shot, catches the tape and topples over. 15-15.
Federer raises his racquet for an apology. But the crowd is certain the raised hand is an acknowledgment of his genius. For their roar. So they follow it up with a payment — the richest tribute. All of Ashe, the largest tennis stadium in the known universe, falls silent. New York too falls in line, momentarily keeping the ambient dins at bay. Anyone who can get that to happen must be a magician. The magician soon takes the set 6-4. Two sets to love in 59 minutes.
A mutual love
It’s said that New Yorkers traditionally back the underdog. They certainly did the previous night when Fabio Fognini found himself two-sets-and-a-break-in-the-third down against Rafael Nadal. But on Saturday, only a few stray voices call for the German to prolong the match. Those voices are easily drowned out by the mesmerised majority. Like every other Slam venue, New York has taken a shining to Federer. Unlike every other Slam venue, Federer has taken a special shining to NYC.
On the first day of this US Open, he was busy promoting one of the city’s many exhibitions called ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’. “This exhibit at the @metmuseum is a must see if you’re in NYC until the 7th,” he had tweeted. Today, after disposing of Kohlschreiber in the third (6-4), he increased ticket sales at a local theatre when he was asked during the on-court interview about his preparations for the game.
“Oh, I was actually at Broadway last evening, watching Hamilton with my family,” he said. “Such a great show. Really enjoyed that.” It tore a smile on every face inside Ashe. One of the world’s most famous sportsmen, Roger Federer, was announcing his love for their culture — stopping just short of wearing an ‘I heart NY’ tee-shirt.
Pam Shriver, the interviewer, then asked the question on everyone’s mind. “So, Roger, are you going to saber your next round opponent, the big-serving John Isner?” The resulting sound shook the very foundations of the stadium. The crowd loved that Federer will be taking on the local hero next. But the explosion was due to the fact that Federer’s latest weapon (developed over the last couple of weeks in the US) of approaching the service line had found a verb form.
Saber — derived from SABR, which stands for Sneak Attack By Roger.
Federer thought about it, scratched his chin cleft, shook back his lustrous hair and replied: “Hmmmmmmmm, nah. I don’t think so.”
With that, he bid Ashe goodbye with that familiar racquet-clap. But his obligations at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center were just beginning. First he visited ESPN’s open-air studio, erected just beside the practice courts. About 3000 fans, draining out of the surrounding showcourts on hearing about Federer’s arrival, flocked below the studio’s railing. “Let’s go Roger, let’s go,” they chanted, even as Federer struggled to be heard by the studio’s gurus.
Half hour later, it was time for the presser. An American journalist asked him about the saber. “I know you’ve answered it a million times before,” the journalist began, “but I seem to have missed it.” “Right,” said Federer, emptying his lungs out with a sigh. Yet, he obliged, leaving no detail — however inconsequential — out. He explained how he and Benoit Paire had arrived in Cincinnati early (“Either on a Friday or a Saturday”), the court he was practicing on and how jet-lag forced him to keep the rallies short during a friendly match.
“Benoit and I were just kidding around almost,” Federer said. “And that’s when I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to chip and charge and just keep the points short’. I’m tired. I want to get off the court soon anyway. I hit a couple of ridiculous winners. That’s when Severin (Luthi) said, ‘Well, what about using it in a match?’ And I was like, ‘No way. Really?'”
Everyone laughed, before the American demanded another obvious answer from the great man. “Do you expect Arthur Ashe to be on your side or John’s on Monday?” he asked. Federer, in all modesty, said, “On his side, quite certainly.” Amazingly, the local journalist didn’t like the answer. So Federer shrugged and said: “If they back me, clearly very happy and appreciate that.
“You know I love playing here. And I think the people of New York do too.”