By the tramlines, the post-match interview lasted about 10 minutes. A backstage chat with actor Bradley Cooper and skiier Lindsey Vonn took roughly twice that time. It was succeeded with a guest appearance at ESPN’s open-air studio. Precisely 30 minutes ticked by. Finally, it was time for the press conference. The session in English was done in 20 minutes; the one in German dusted in 15.
On Friday night, Roger Federer quite easily spent more time deconstructing his win over Stan Wawrinka off-court for our benefit than he actually did deconstructing Stan Wawrinka on it for his own.
The all-Swiss semifinal had persevered for a total 92 minutes. Federer prevailed quite spectacularly — without being broken on the night and without dropping a set over the fortnight (the count is now 28 since Cincinnati). The atavistic performance put him in his seventh US Open final, a round he hasn’t visited in six years. A round visited with great consistency by his Sunday’s opponent, Novak Djokovic.
Barring 2014, where he was shocked by Kei Nishikori in the semifinal, Djokovic has made every US Open final since 2010. But more consistent and outrageous than that is the fact that the world’s top ranked player has now reached every Grand Slam final of 2015 — a feat last achieved by, you guessed it, Roger Federer (2006 and 2007). That was attained by grazing out defending champion Marin Cilic faster than Federer had Wawrinka by seven minutes (the combined match time of the men’s semis was two minutes shorter than the combined match time of the women’s semis!). It set up a most delectable finale.
World number one versus world number two. The best of this time versus the best of all time. What can get more remarkable than that?
“It’s just a straight shootout. That’s the cool thing about our rivalry. It’s very athletic,” Federer said when asked about Djokovic, the only man who has beaten him more than once in this calendar year. The Swiss began with a win in the Dubai final. The Serb hit back with title-winning victories in Indians Wells, Rome and Wimbledon. But Federer had the final say on the quick and skiddy courts of Cincinnati, crushing Djokovic in straight sets in the tune-up to the quick and skiddy courts of New York.
“I think we both can handle each others’ play. I don’t know how it is for him, but I feel like he doesn’t need to adjust his game as much, either,” said Federer. “We tend to soak in whatever we present to one another, which makes our matches very even.” Their head-to-head stats wholly comply, of course.
Federer and Djokovic have met 41 times before Sunday. The former has won 21, the latter 20. This see-saw, however, tilts under Djokovic when it comes to Grand Slams. They’ve met nine times at the semi-final stage, with the Serb leading 5-4. But more importantly, they’ve met thrice in the final, with the Serb leading 2-1. Djokovic beat him in the last two finals at SW19. Federer, however, had won on this very court in 2007, the Slam in which Djokovic made his first ever final.
That year, 2007, was also the last of what is now known as, even by Federer himself, the ‘Dominant Era’. The following year, ‘08, the Swiss didn’t defend his Wimbledon title for the first time in five years — losing to Rafael Nadal in five sets. And the year after that, ‘09, the Swiss didn’t defend his US Open crown for the first time in five years — losing to Juan Martin Del Potro in five sets. It took until Friday to get back to this stage.
“What’s it been now, six years? Sounds like a big deal. But doesn’t feel like long ago, in my opinion,” he said, combusting into a squint-eyed giggle. In those six years, Federer went on to snatch every other Slam at least once, including the elusive French Open. But here in New York, a second Sunday appearance stayed well out of reach. In many ways, this arena has characterised his ‘fall’.
It was here that he doubted his natural ability and equipment for the first time, switching over to a racquet with a larger frame to cope with the monster hitters in 2013 (he promptly switched back after losing in straight sets to Tommy Robredo in the fourth round). And it was here that the critics began writing him off, as he was now losing to rank outsiders — Robredo, Tomas Berdych and Cilic.
Age no bar
But it was here, over the last fortnight, where Federer really began turning it around. At the ripe old age of 34, no less. Yes, his form at the Championships in Wimbledon was breathtaking. But that was just form. Here, he has flipped the very structure, the foundations, of his play around. Here, he blindsided the field with his sneak attacks, with his sky-hooks and with his ultra-offensive play.
“He’s serving better than I never see him serve (sic),” said Wawrinka, trying to come to terms with his 6-4, 6-3, 6-1 loss on the night. Federer won 80 per cent of his first serves through the match — 92 per cent in the second set and 92 per cent in the third. “The way he’s playing, he’s reading better, moving better, so everything going faster, that’s for sure.”
Was Federer playing as well as he did in his early twenties? “Better,” Wawrinka shrugged and said. “I didn’t lose. It’s basically him.” Just ask Leonardo Mayer (first round), Steve Darcis (second), Philipp Kohlschreiber (third), John Isner (fourth) and Richard Gasquet (quarters) — they’ll attest as well.
Federer, however, seemed a tad amused with all the attention his transformation was getting. But he made it a point to establish the fact that though his new tactics have been employed only over the last month or so in North America, it had germinated in his head and during his practice sessions in Basel a while ago.
“Yeah, so it’s nice to get rewarded after all that hard work and, you know, that actually I’m able to play sort of fun tennis, if I may say so myself,” he said. But wasn’t it so much tougher to learn new tricks given that he is an old dog, in his mid-30s? “I don’t feel like I’m as old as I am. I still feel young,” Federer said, laughing again.
“So it’s been fun to try new things with the tennis ball. Be aggressive, pick it up, you know, like half volley it, move in, serve and volley, cut the points short, and if I want to extend the rallies.”
Djokovic of course is going to resist Federer from dictating play with far greater poise and skill than the fallen others. Especially in a final that he has won just once (2011) in five previous attempts. “Everything in life happens for a reason,” he said, speaking about his second Sunday losing streak here at Flushing Meadows.
“I mean, the fact that nobody played tennis in my family and that, you know, by chance they make three tennis courts in front of the restaurant that my family owned when I was four,” he said. “I think that’s a destiny. Things always come together for you to become who you want to become.”
On Sunday, Djokovic wants to become the US Open champion. But so does Federer — a phenom ageing like Benjamin Button.