Not since 1999, the year after he turned professional, has he been absent from the biggest and brightest of tennis’s Grand Slams—an 11-year streak. And in 2011, he is back to make it a round dozen in his 48th consecutive Grand Slam tournament.
In the words of New York’s own George and Ira Gershwin: “S’Wonderful.”
And while Federer may have won more titles at Wimbledon—six compared with five in New York—his consistency over the years at Flushing Meadows has been the best of all his Slams.
If that brilliant thread is to retain its lustre this year and keep New York at the top of his statistical table, he will have to reach the quarter-final—but then he’s done just that at the last 29 Slams.
And there lies the danger in talking of Federer’s 13 years in tennis. The statistics, by their sheer weight, take centre stage, leaving the man and his tennis with another hurdle to jump, another record to beat.
It means that he comes to the US Open this year, bearing a sequence of five titles, a final and a semi-final, with the focus squarely on what he has failed to do since losing the match of the tournament here a year ago to Novak Djokovic.
He has failed to win a Slam since Australia last year, he has failed to win a tournament since Doha in January, he failed for the first time to win a Grand Slam match from a two-set lead and, should he fail to win in New York, he will be without a Major for the first year in almost a decade.
Faced with the pressure of performing at a constantly high level over such a time-span—particularly in such a physically demanding individual sport—many bodies and minds would buckle.
On both counts, Federer has endured. Never in his professional career has he retired from a match nor failed to enter a Grand Slam, and never has he shown a weariness with the sport nor with the demands it makes on him.
He rarely fails in his media commitments, though with a young family in tow, he may have had a better excuse than many to opt out of the Irene-disrupted press conferences. He didn’t, and ran the gamut of questions, both direct and indirect, about his age.
“No, turning 30 hasn’t changed anything. I’m still as professional. I’m still as hungry. Everything’s still completely normal. It’s just a number that’s changed.”
“I think [Agassi] was 35, so I was like, wow, that was his 20th US Open I think in a row. I’ve got a way to go.”
He elaborated, as he has done before, on his durability.
“I feel my game allows me to still play for many more years because I have a relaxed playing style. I have almost played a 1,000 matches on tour and that leaves its toll, but I’m very professional when it comes to massages, stretching, diet, sleep, all of that stuff.
“I have always looked in the long term. I have never been chasing stuff around since I turned world No1 seven years ago. That’s why I’m confident I can still play for many more years to come at the highest of levels.”
But the challenges, as he embarks on his 50th Major, continue to beat like waves on the shore. Can he set a new Open era record of six US titles?
Can he become the first man to win six or more titles at two different Grand Slams?
Will he equal the number of match wins set by Jimmy Connors (he is just 10 short)?
This latest set of challenges will be answered only if he completes the seven matches that lie in wait over the coming fortnight, and his draw has ensured it is a sequence designed to tug and twist that New York thread to breaking point.
His 257th match in a Major will pit him against the 56-ranked Santiago Giraldo under the late-evening lights of Arthur Ashe.
With precious little match-play through the North American Masters this summer due to earlier-than-expected losses in Montreal and Cincinnati, and a practice schedule interrupted by rain, Federer’s preparation has been far from ideal: He will need to hit the court running.
His end-of-week third-round opponent could be any of three different players. The youngest man in the draw, Bernard Tomic, made Djokovic fight for his money in the Wimbledon quarter-finals this year and has the big game to suit New York.
However, many will be hoping for Ryan Harrison to pull off an upset against Marin Cilic to set up a face-off with Federer.
The 19-year-old American has risen more than 100 places to No66 since the start of the year and is vociferously confident.
He has taken some decent scalps through the US Open Series, too, and will undoubtedly relish the challenge of Federer, though may get his fingers burned for suggesting, as he did recently, that Federer might need to find more fire when he’s playing Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
The next eighth holds old adversaries Radek Stepanek, Philipp Kohlschreiber and Tommy Haas, the first of whom recently took the Washington 500 title.
It’s the next step, the quarter-final stage, where Federer may curse the throw of the dice that has brought another possible meeting with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
For it was the Frenchman, who is playing with renewed freedom and confidence since separating from his coach, who turned a two-set deficit into a win against Federer in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon.
As if to rub salt into the wound, Tsonga beat him again in three sets in the Canadian Masters.
That rematch will only happen, however, if Tsonga beats one of the in-form men on the tour, Mardy Fish. The American, already the winner of the US Open Series on the back of one title, two further finals and a semi-final finish in successive tournaments, is in pitch-perfect shape and full of confidence.
Fish is seeded higher than Tsonga and may well beat him to that meeting with Federer. In truth, either opponent would produce a blockbuster of a quarter-final.
And so to the prospect of yet another meeting of one of most intriguing rivalries in tennis: Federer and Djokovic. They have played 23 times, all but four of them on hard courts, and have ended up on opposite sides of the net in the last four US Opens.
Last year, though, was a turning point for Djokovic as he fended off two match points to finally get the better of Federer, and he beat him again at the Australian Open this year. But it was Federer who brought Djokovic’s unbroken run to an end in Paris: They have not played one another since.
Federer knows that, as last year, this could be the decisive match of the tournament, and that whoever endures will have to do it all over again in the final. Last year, Djokovic had left too much blood on the court to then resist Nadal in the final. It could be the same story again in 2011.
However this particular US Open plays out, one thing is certain. Federer and New York have already made magic together, much as those Gershwins did with one of their greatest exponents, Fred Astaire.
Like the good man said: “They can’t take that away from me.”
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