NEW YORK – On September 13, 2009, Roger Federer stood straddling tennis like a colossus, extending the shadow on Arthur Ashe Stadium and Juan Martin del Potro, 20, the ultimate hurdle to a record sixth straight title in singles.
At nightfall, as the spectators tried to hide their surprise, Potro was lying on his victorious back, his limbs extended like points of the compass. Federer's five-year reign at the US Open was over. For the most part, it seemed like an interruption. Nobody would have predicted that, in the decade that followed, Federer would be unable to win another US Open.
But here we are, 10 years from now, and Federer still has not found a way to collect the pieces of the broken puzzle by del Potro. And until now, at Flushing Meadows in 2019, it has not been totally convincing.
"It's supposed to be easy," Federer said of the fight to regain his game after Wednesday's win against 3-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 against Damir Dzumhur. When asked why he had so much trouble throwing his genie into the last big major of the year, he simply replied, "I have no answer to [give] you."
Federer's US Open Blues theories abound, mostly anchored in the themes of age and fatigue. Even then, offering a convincing explanation is a largely unsatisfactory exercise.
"This fourth major of the year is still considered the toughest of tennis," said Pam Shriver, an ESPN analyst, in an interview. "The late nights, the heat, the chaos of the whole New York scene, you do not know that it's exhausting you, but it takes a little more each day."
Few people would argue with Shriver's assessment. But Paul Annacone, Federer coach for two very productive years (2010-11) and now Tennis Channel analyst, is skeptical.
"For most people, I would say:" Yes, distractions are a threat. "But for Roger, he has always managed distractions better than anyone else I've ever seen. "
ESPN analyst, Brad Gilbert, gives reason to the notion of a physical drain at the US Open, contrasting well with the Australian Open – where Federer has revived his career in 2017.
"Courts [here] may be similar to those in Australia, said Gilbert. But at the beginning of the year, Roger takes a short break and he had a training block. The US Open takes place eight months later, after a lot of tennis. He is not 28 years old, he is 38 years old. "
Most of the elements that made the US Open the most notorious slam were tempered. A player can still feel the warm breath of New York's demanding fans on his neck, but the diverse and cosmopolitan crowd is more docile now than in the early years of Federer's ascendant. The roof of the Arthur Ashe Stadium has eliminated the challenge – at least for Federer – of playing five consecutive matches following the rain. The exhausting format of "Super Saturday", where the men were playing Saturday's semifinals with the women's sandwich final, was finally abandoned in 2013 – thanks in part to requests from Federer and Rafael Nadal.
The table of Federer's revival at the US Open has long been fixed, but that has not happened yet. And time is running out.
Although Teder Berdych (quarter-finals, 2012) does not suffer any abnormal defeats, Tommy Robredo (fourth round, 2014) and John Millman (fourth, 2018) should not be reduced, but the key to the ten-year drought at Federer seems Novak Djokovic, the great disruptor of the rivalry Federer / Nadal, has been the victim of two consecutive decisive defeats. The fact that Federer fell to Djokovic in the semi-finals – despite two match points in each match – still casts doubt on the credulity of the two tournaments that followed his defeat against Del Potro in 2009. You have not to believe the wizards to see how this could spell a spell on the subsequent efforts of a player.
The most painful of these failures took place in 2011. Djokovic swept the first goal of the match with a winner from an atomic right shot that he celebrated while parading in front of the crowd, arms crossed. This explosion triggered a reaction Federer as rare as his defeats in Grand Slam. Subsequently, he swept the author of the glorious shot.
When asked if the forehand might have come from Djokovic's confidence, Federer said, "Trust, you're making fun of me, I mean, please."
Referring clearly to Djokovic, Federer snorted, "Some players are growing up and playing like that, they all lost a 5-2 record in the third inning, and they're just starting to shoot. played in this way because at first I may not always have worked hard, but for me it's very difficult to understand how can you play a match at the same time? "
For Annacone, the second of these points in 2011 was really painful. He still remembers, in striking and heartbreaking details, how one of his forehands, trademarked Federer knocked down, hit the net to retreat to his side.
"You do not like it happening to anyone," Annacone said. "So, yes, there was a bit of bad luck." After the defeat, Roger told me: "Look, there are a few slams that I should not have had to win. no more."
In the end, these matches could be the key to the success of the chase for singles title. Djokovic, 16 times Grand Slam champion (two behind Nadal), is the youngest of the Big Three and the seeded here. He is close to Federer, but the most prolific champion (Federer has 20 major tournaments) has not lost hope in New York. Federer and Djokovic would face in the semifinals here if they both advance.
Federer acknowledged last week that he was also struggling with his recent difficulties at this tournament. Could it be that, with his easy genius and his talent for skating over the surface of adversity and triumph with as much aplomb, Federer simply does not get those crucial breaks who shape tournaments in New York?
"Look, I have no explanation why it did not happen as well as possible," he said. "I think I'm a bit unlucky, too, that was part of it, yes."
Federer appeared at Flushing Meadows for his first match with a steel glint in his eyes and, with a few days of stubble on his face usually shaved close up, the look of a grizzled veteran. The signal was pretty clear: Federer was serious. But he was pushed back on the heels early in his match with the qualifier Sumit Nagal.
Federer survived the challenge in four sets, but the stubble was gone for his second-round match with Dzumher. One thing is certain: Federer is trying all the tricks of the book. But the book is only so long.