US Open 2017

US Open 2017: Roger Federer is favourite in New York in more ways than one

Roger Federer is aiming to secure his sixth US Open title at Flushing Meadows in New York and take his Grand Slam tally to 20

roger federer
Roger Federer in practice action in New York Photo: Marianne Bevis

For almost a week now, it has been hard to separate the name of Roger Federer from the last Major of the year, the US Open.

Tennis.com has been running a feature all week entitled Roger Federer and New York City, which includes contributions from the likes of Anna Wintour—“Everyone calls themselves Roger Federer fans. I consider myself a groupie”—and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda—“I wrote half the thing while watching you play”.

The New York Times magazine, published on the Sunday before the tournament gets under way in earnest, carries a stunning cover image of Federer airborne behind the words ‘Wonder year’.

He has been downtown to launch his bespoke Nike clothing collection at Kith Soho, and at Flushing for a photo op with one of his oldest sponsors, Mercedes Benz. He was centre stage in central Manhattan for the latest Laver Cup splash, itself the brainchild of Federer and his agent, Tony Godsick.

He teamed up with fellow US Open champions Rafael Nadal and Venus Williams to entertain a packed Arthur Ashe stadium on Kids Day, and that after holding an open practice in the morning.

And his image tops the US Open’s Twitter page alongside last year’s women’s champion Angelique Kerber. Admittedly both last year’s men’s finalists, Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic, are absent with injury, but there have been three other US champions since Federer last won in New York, and one of them, Nadal, is this week’s No1 and the top seed.

But New York in general, and the US Open in particular, seems to have Federer fever. And there is a good reason—well, several good reasons.

When he missed the US Open last year, it was the first time in 16 years that he had done so. The five-time champion and 2015 runner-up was out of the game for much of 2016, did not play a match after Wimbledon, did not win a title, and ended the season on a 21-7 tally.

Did his first ever surgery and first absence of this kind spell the end? After all, he came into 2017 at his lowest ranking since June 2001, No17, and was into his 36th year.

But Federer had used his time away to good effect, came back physically strong, mentally refreshed, and with a reinvigorated game. He beat four top-10 men, and then Nadal, to win his first Major since 2012 in Australia, and backed it up with the biggest Masters double in the calendar, Indian Wells and Miami.

He broke the mould again, bypassing the entire clay season to focus on grass. That worked like a charm too: a record ninth Halle title followed by a record eighth Wimbledon title. And along the way, his famed rivalry with Nadal was also renewed through three matches, two of them finals. Federer won them all, but Nadal was putting together his own fine rebound from an extended injury break. He won a 10th French Open, plus the Monte Carlo and Madrid Masters.

And with Djokovic, Wawrinka and Andy Murray bowing under the weight of injuries—and missing this year’s US Open as a result—Federer and Nadal were, all at once, in a head-to-head race for the No1 ranking and lined up to set their first ever contest in the Big Apple.

Nadal had already displaced Murray after starting the year at No9, over three years after he was last No1. Could Federer leap-frog Nadal to the top after a five-year absence?

Enough of a story, then, to whet the appetite of fans in New York. But when it comes to Federer, the stories at this particular Major keep piling up. The pre-tournament notes helpfully outline some of them.

Roger Federer at US Open 2017

Federer can extend his record of Major titles to a well-rounded 20 with victory here.

The title would also guarantee the No1 ranking—indeed just reaching the final would do so.

A sixth title here would be a new Open record, bringing an end to his three-way tie with Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras.

An eighth final would draw him level with the Open era record in New York of Sampras and Ivan Lendl.

He would set an Open era record between first title and last title of 13 years.

He would also record the biggest gap between titles of nine years, 2008 to 2017.

He would become the oldest US Open champion in the Open era.

No man has won or played more matches inside Arthur Ashe stadium, 66-8, and no man has won more night sessions, 31-1.

Federer, then, is New York’s favourite in more ways than one. He is admired for his style of play, his longevity, his achievements and his generosity with fans. But he is proving to be many pundits’ favourite for the title here, too.

However, in a summer that has seen Murray, Djokovic, Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic fall to injury, Federer has not been immune. He picked up a back problem in the final of the Montreal Masters—a chronic condition that has struck at inopportune moments before, such as the World Tour Finals in 2014—and he withdrew from Cincinnati.

So naturally, he was asked whether this might affect his performance in New York.

“The first week [after Montreal] was really just trying to feel better, get better, get back on the court at some stage. I have been on the practice courts since last week. There you have it. I have been playing sets the last few days, and I’m really happy how I’m feeling a few days out of the first round here now.”

But what about the meat of the matter, his thoughts on a surprising scenario that has two old rivals back as favourites for a Major title?

“Well, I didn’t foresee that the defending champ and the finalist wouldn’t be here. And that Andy was going to struggle this year. You could foresee maybe that Rafa and me would be back at some stage in some shape or form, but maybe not quite like this. So I think we’re all a bit surprised—all the players, all the media, all the experts and fans.

“I mean, Rafa’s year has been exceptional, winning the 10th French Open. I mean, people didn’t even think he was going to win the French Open again. For me, only once he retires I believe he won’t win anymore. He’s that good of a player. I’m not too surprised he’s back to this magnitude, and being back at world No1 after all these years is really exceptional, really nice for him.”
And what about possibly facing Nadal for the first time in New York?

“We never played here, so I think that would be fun for everybody involved. I mean, there are, I don’t know, 60-plus players in between us that don’t agree that we should make it to the semis. We have our work cut out there. But I’d love to play Rafa here in New York. Hopefully it will be a night session. Hopefully that would be a great atmosphere and one that we again play great like at the Australian Open.”

But casting back to his very first title here, 13 years ago, what were his memories?
“Well, winning here for the first time was big, you know. 2004 was a great year for me. World No1 for the first time and trying to win the US Open for the first time.

“Then defending it the following year against Agassi. You look back at those first couple of years where I got on the run of the five here. I fell in love with New York, I always loved coming back here as a junior back in ’98, and every year after that.”

Yes, to regain No1 so many years later would be quite something, though Federer already holds the record for overall weeks and most consecutive weeks, around six years and five years respectively. But that is to jump ahead things.

His is a tough quarter boasting the likes of Nick Kyrgios, who has pressed Federer to the limit in both previous matches, both comprising three tie-breaks. Then there is Juan Martin del Potro, who denied Federer his sixth US title in 2009. And Dominic Thiem beat Federer in their last two meetings.

First though, Federer will play his 33rd night session here on Tuesday against the rising American, 19-year-old Frances Tiafoe.

So perhaps the New York crowd will this time be cheering on the underdog. Just don’t bet on it.

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