US Open 2015: Roger Federer still making hay while the sun shines

Roger Federer - now 34 years old - is about to embark on his 16th campaign in New York

Twelve years after winning his first Grand Slam title, at Wimbledon in 2003, and 11 years after claiming the first of five back-to-back titles at the US Open, the evergreen Roger Federer – now 34 years old – is about to embark on his 16th campaign in New York, his 64th consecutive Grand Slam appearance.

Perhaps no surprising that no-one else has ever played all four Majors every year for 16 straight seasons. Perhaps more surprising, Federer has continued to combine longevity and winning: Not only does he lead the Open-era field on his favourite grass with 14 titles, he leads the hard-court field too, with 59 titles.

And perhaps most surprising—at least to some pundits—is that what began to look like a waning of his powers and ambition after a singular summer in London in 2012 was clearly no such thing.

To many, it would have been no surprise at all if Federer’s ambition, if not his powers, were dulled after such a summer. Now the father of twins, back at No1 in the rankings, with his name etched for a seventh time onto Wimbledon’s trophy, and turning 31 a few days after achieving his declared aim of a singles Olympic medal—albeit silver—it would be a memorable moment to hang up his racket. And after failing to defend his Basel and World Tour Finals titles at the end of the year, that too might have signalled a halt.

But in Dubai a couple of months into 2013, the message was loud and clear: “I just want to give myself the best possible chance to play as long as I can. It will be clear when it’s time to stop, but the time is definitely not now. We know things change very quickly—got to be ready and open for it, and I am. I’m not being naïve that I can play for another 15 years, but I’d like to give myself a chance to play for many more years to come… as long as I feel competitive, and I enjoy it.”

Perhaps, though, the sands of time would force his hand. Soon after that Dubai conversation, an old back problem that had punctuated his career flared up in Indian Wells. After a six-title, 71-12 season in 2012, he managed to win only Halle and 45 matches in 2013. More worrying, he began to lose to unusually low-ranked opponents: to Sergiy Stakhovsky in Round 2 at Wimbledon, to Federico Delbonis in Hamburg, and to Daniel Brands in his first match in Gstaad. It would be the first year he failed to reach a Grand Slam final since that first Wimbledon title in 2003, and his lowest ranking since the end of 2002.

But he remained true to his word. In October’s Basel, and yet to qualify for the World Tour Finals, he insisted: “I always look at least one and half years ahead. Clearly Rio’s further than that, but as long as my body and mind are ready to travel, I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing, and I’m successful, I’ll be playing for some time, and that hasn’t changed due to a tough six months right now.”

These were not, either, stubborn words in the face of a constant chipping away at the ‘retirement’ theme. He was looking ahead constructively and creatively—a facet of this man’s character as vital to his success as hard work and talent.

Armed with the new bigger racket he had trialled earlier in the year, he then appointed childhood hero Stefan Edberg as mentor coach. Now the No8-ranked Swiss re-introduced more of his Sampras-beating volleying of a decade before, and cranked up his single-handed backhand into an offensive tool as much as a defensive one. An intense training block had worked wonders on his back and his all-court athleticism: The surge was on.

By the end of 2014, he had won five titles from 11 finals, including a near miss at Wimbledon in a five-set thriller against Novak Djokovic, and he was challenging for the No1 ranking by the World Tour Finals. Even a flare-up of his back spasm at the O2 did not impede his part in Switzerland’s first Davis Cup victory.

Now those Rio ambitions were being inked in rather than pencilled, all the more so as his tennis has evolved through 2015. He enters the Grand Slam climax of the year, indeed, as one of the favourites after unleashing a still more aggressive game on the fast courts of Cincinnati.

So effective was his serving there that he faced break points in only one game through the entire tournament, saving them all. He won 80 percent of his first-serve points—consolidating the same average throughout the year.

So startling was his service-line rush on return-of-serve that even this year’s best, Djokovic and Andy Murray, were thrown out of rhythm.

And so innovative was the tactic in this post-serve-and-volley era that it was soon given a name off of its own: ‘Sabr’ captures perfectly the cut-and-thrust of the tactic, but is also the result of a “sneaky attack by Roger”.

The draw in New York, as it turns out, has again thrown Djokovic and Murray into his path, over the altogether tougher best-of-five sets and seven rounds. Add in the slower Flushing Meadows courts and the two best returners in tennis, both former champions, both with strong runs in Montreal and Cincinnati, both ahead of the field with 56 wins this year, and Federer has a mountain to climb.

He also has one of the toughest opening matches against the highest unseeded player in the draw, No33 Leonardo Mayer—and they have history. Mayer had five match points against Federer in his opening match at the Shanghai Masters before losing in a third-set tie-break. Federer told ATPWorldTour.com:

“I didn’t know he was unseeded. Total shock to see that I was going to play him…The Shanghai match was one of the luckiest I’ve ever won in my career. Even now, the other day when I practised with him, I know the power he has on both sides, plus the serve. It makes him tough to control from the baseline. I have to try to make it an athletic match, shortening the points, on my terms.”

Federer will surely unleash his Edberg-honed tactics at the front of the court whenever possible, but he is still confident of living with most opponents at the back of the court, too, in a game he honed pre-Edberg to maintain parity with the new elite, first Rafael Nadal, then Djokovic and Murray.

This weekend, he talked about the ebb and flow of tactics over the last decade.

“I felt definitely five, 10, 15 years ago you just had a bit more time once the courts slowed down. In the beginning, you got pressure from the serve-and-volley player, the chip-and-charge player, the guy who’s going for broke on the return [and] that kind of disappeared when the slower courts came in. Now the bigger guys came in and started to hit huge from the baseline, and you started to have less time, even on the slower courts. So I had to adjust my game accordingly, again, but I think it was helpful for me to start out on faster courts against the serve-and-volley players.”

He has always relished that ebb and flow, the thinking game as much as the physical, the fresh solutions to fresh faces and fresh problems. He talked after his Cincinnati victory like an enthusiastic teenager about the pleasure he has, and continues to take, in every changing phase.

“I really, really loved the beginning of my career when I was against players I knew from TV. That was super special, achieving that dream from boy, to ball-boy, to hopefully one day playing on the big tour, and who knows maybe lifting trophies. That was very special, I will never forget that.

“The dominant phase, when I was able to win a lot of tournaments, including Wimbledon and becoming world No1, that was just something else. And now this time of my life is very different. As you saw, my twin girls are here and my boys [his second twins were born 15 months ago], and it’s just nice that they are all with me, and I still enjoy it as much as I ever have. Perhaps even more so, because I can appreciate the game so much today.”

Of the ‘sabr’, he added: “It’s fun for me, mixes my mind up, you have to be committed, and that’s always a good thing,” proving the old adage: ‘Variety is the spice of life.’

With his mental and physical wellbeing in such good order, he is eager to cash in when he begins his latest Major on Tuesday in New York. For as he has repeated several times this week, he’s not made the US Open final since 2009, and “I came close, but close is not good enough.”

Federer’s tennis career cannot last for ever, but for now, he will live his life and play his game according to another adage, and ‘make hay while the sun shines.’

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