At some point during Wednesday’s night session here at the US Open, Roger Federer leaned back to attempt a drop shot. He could’ve chosen to forehand thwack the fuzz out of the ball just as his opponent, Richard Gasquet, had a moment earlier. Instead, half way through a longish rally, one of the very few in this match, Federer’s pink shoes stopped squeaking on court.
And from about two metres behind the baseline, his right wrist, wrapped in a pink sweatband, collapsed.
The hitherto speeding projectile turned inert, dropping dead about an inch after crossing the tape. The crowd gasped. Gasquet gasped. Up in the commentary box, John McEnroe gasped. Federer didn’t gasp. He just shook back his lustrous hair. It was that kind of a night at the Arthur Ashe Stadium, where Federer did as he pleased.
“I wonder if Roger played better than this in his twenties,” McEnroe said on air, before noticing Robert Federer, Roger’s father, listening to his commentary on the radio in his son’s box. “Let’s ask him, shall we? Hi Robert, how many times in your life have you seen your son play better than today? Raise one finger if once. Raise two fingers if twice.”
Robert didn’t move. McEnroe, though, had his answer. “No fingers went up,” he said. “Told you the answer was zero.”
That breathtaking drop was one of 50 breathtaking winners the Swiss devised in this match — a most divine exhibition of breathtaking innovations.
Federer could well have done the same while hitting against a wall, for Gasquet wasn’t present on the same court. Don’t believe the eventual scoreline. It was far more humililiating and far more one-sided than 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 could ever suggest.
The exhibit lasted just 86 minutes. But it was enough time for him to create a masterpiece. “A masterpiece that outdid every other Federer masterpiece on this court,” according to McEnroe. It had it all — glorious serves, incredible returns, ‘tweeners, sabers, screamers and stunners. Even Federer would concede that his game on the night, and fortnight, was a tad surreal.
“Are you amazed at all at yourself that you’re doing that at this level at this age?” he was asked after his 86-minute workout on court. “Yeah, a little bit,” Federer said.
“You know, at my age to run through five opponents the way I have done here at the US Open, I don’t consider that normal, to be quite honest. Even though I expect it, I don’t quite feel its normal.” That was that. Federer had finally shocked Federer.
At 34, and playing like he did at 24, Federer made his tenth US Open semifinal. But to get to the final, a place he hasn’t visited since 2009, he will have to get past friend, countryman and a man who has won two more Grand Slams than Federer has in the last two years — Stanislas Wawrinka.
Wawrinka, who thrashed Federer in straight sets the last time they met in the quarterfinals of the French Open (a tournament that the younger Swiss went on to in), has had an impressive run into the semifinal of the US Open as well. At the same time that Federer played at Arthur Ashe, Wawrinka was taking apart Kevin Anderson — the South African who took out Andy Murray in the fourth round — on Louis Armstrong. Anderson won all of 5 points in the final set.
“Best match of the tournament for me,” Wawrinka would later say. “But it’s not going to be easy from here on. I know I play Roger next.”
Wawrinka claimed that he was Federer’s ‘first fan’. “I saw what Federer was about well before the world did. He was impressive even before he became a pro,” he said. “But what’s most impressive is to see the way he is playing today. For sure. It feels like he is flying on court.”
Federer was asked what it meant for him to play Wawrinka next. “A bit weird, actually. I feel we meet each other somewhere in our minds before the point is being played out,” he said. “For Swiss tennis it’s huge that we have two guys in the semis in the biggest arena in the world.
“The only better scenario would’ve been the final.”