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Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Roger Federer's hunt for vindication


How should we assess the state of Roger Federer's game as he prepares for the U.S. Open? Even more than his beloved Wimbledon, this tournament has been his rock, his island of success when all else seemed to be falling apart. In 2008, he careened into Flushing Meadows after an epic defeat at Wimbledon and terrible losses in Toronto, Cincinnati and at the Beijing Olympics. Two weeks later he emerged from the heat of New York smelling like a rose, on top of the game, a champion once again.

As in '08, Federer has traveled to North America fresh off a rare loss at Wimbledon. Can we expect vindication again? He still likes the relatively slick hard courts at Flushing, and though he didn't win the event in Toronto last week, he did avenge his Wimbledon loss to Tomas Berdych before losing in two tight sets to Andy Murray in the final. Based on this evidence, he's in better shape than he was at the same point two years ago, when he lost an early-round match to Gilles Simon in Canada. And he is -- in 2008, he could barely keep a forehand in the court during the summer. But that's a very low standard by which to judge the progress of this player. Like it or not, the "monster of expectations" that Federer has created, and so aptly described, means that anything less than Slam-winning -- check that, Slam-smashing -- form is going to be seen as a sign of decline.

By that high measure, it seemed that every upside came with a downside for Federer in Toronto. He didn't drop a set in his first two rounds, against Chela and Llodra, but each of those second-tier players succeeded in bottling him up for most of the match. Against Berdych, Federer tightened the ship when he was down 5-3 in the third, but he also relied on some old-fashioned gagging from Berdych, who, after matching Federer shot for shot for two hours, suddenly remembered his place in tennis' pecking order. Just as significant was the way Federer lost the second set. Serving at 5-6, he double-faulted twice, hit a late forehand long and shanked a backhand into the back fence on set point. Federer admitted afterward that, after two straight losses to Berdych, he believed that this one would slip away as well. That isn't something we've heard much, or ever, from Federer in the past, but it showed in the way he lost that second set.

Although he didn't break down as severely against Murray, Federer still lost two close sets, sets he's specialized in winning in the past. He couldn't rely on Murray, who had beaten him six times before, to remember his place in the pecking order and give him any breaks. More important, unlike in the past, Murray didn't win by waiting for Federer to miss; he took the rallies to him and served big when he had to. Every champion relies on his name alone to make his opponents think twice when they try to finish him off. Contrary to some rumors, Federer is still as feared in the locker room as ever, as Berdych showed. It's still a very big and very nerve-wracking deal to beat him. This will be even more true at the U.S. Open, where his opponents will have five sets, rather than three, to mull over the possibility.

At the same time, Toronto showed another opposing truth about aging champions. It isn't that they lose a step; it's that there are always talented younger guys who are gaining them. Murray gained on Federer last year; this season it's been Berdych's turn. Although Federer played well with his back to the wall last week, there was an ad hoc sense to his performances. He couldn't sustain his vintage best for more than a set at a time, and his attempts to be proactive -- to hit big against Berdych, to come to net against Murray -- were largely thwarted. Maybe Paul Annacone can help him hone his first strikes (though whether they will form a long-term partnership seemed more up in the air as the week went on). But if the Rogers Cup is any indication, the famously smooth and serene Roger Federer will sweat through a few hot days and wild nights in New York ... and so will his fans.