Return Of The Fed Express


His fifth straight U.S. Open championship in Flushing Meadow Monday must have been especially sweet for Roger Federer.

2008 had been a disaster by his exalted standards. Heading into the campaign with 12 majors in his pocket, a three-peat of his 2006 and 2007 campaigns — wins in Melbourne, London and New York — would have pushed the Swiss racquet maestro past Pete Sampras as tennis’ all-time Grand Slam champion.

But a loss in the semifinals at the Australian to Novak Djokovic started the year in the wrong direction. Then it slipped out that Roger had mono. A blowout by his nemesis Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros didn’t do much for Federer fans or his psyche.

But surely, the express would be righted at Wimbledon. There, Bjorn Borg’s five consecutive crowns would be toppled by the man with the Old English ‘F’ on his cap.

Instead, Rafa won an epic five-setter — after Roger rallied from a pair down — that was interrupted twice by rain, and was just a few moments away from darkness extending the match into Monday at the All-England.  

Federer’s hard court season was desultory, low-lighted by a loss at Montreal to Ivo Karlovic, the hard-serving giant who had never beaten Roger. The defeat ensured that Nadal would unseat Federer atop the tennis world — a position he held for a record 237 weeks.

Next, there was quarterfinal ouster by James Blake — the American’s first-ever win against the former world’s No. 1 — at the Olympics. While Roger did team with Stanislas Warinka to take home doubles gold for Switzerland, Nadal scored the singles hardware from Beijing.

As the stage moved to Queens and the final 2008 Slam, the buzz was with the Mallorcan. Federer? He had spent too much time on charitable work, too much time with Anna Wintour at fashion shoots.  He took his victory lap way too early, with the Sampras exhibition series in Asia last November and at Madison Square Garden in March. He’d lost a step; his footwork was off; the forehand, the best in the game, was a relic. He was going to join the likes of Borg, Boris Becker and John McEnroe, champs who hit the tennis wall never to win another Slam.

Redemption began on the first night at Arthur Ashe Stadium on the Open’s opening night. With an introduction of champions past, celebrating 40 years of the Open era, Federer received the loudest cheer. New York was behind their adopted son.

But the ragged play continued. The feet didn’t move quickly enough; forehands continued to sail long; put-aways kept coming back at him. He let out cries of exultation/relief after beating No. 23 Igor Andreev in five sets during the round of 16 and toppling qualifier Gilles Muller in three tough sets in the quarters. Vulnerability thy name was Federer.

Things began to turn around in the seminfinals. He outplayed the 2007 finalist  and No. 3 seed Djokovic in four ‘Super Saturday’ sets at Ashe Stadium, before Gustav arrived in the Apple. 

Meanwhile, the 21-year-old Scot Andy Murray was giving Rafa what for on Armstrong. Standing10 feet behind the baseline, Murray nullified the high-kicking serve.During their ground stroke exchanges, Murray stepped in against the Spaniard’s cross-court shot, routinely knocking them down the line for winners. But the rain stopped play for the day in the third set. When they advanced to Ashe on Sunday, Nadal took care of business in the third set. Would the new No. 1 dig deep? Not deep enough: Murray returned to his Saturday form and closed things out in four.

Putting 76% of his first serves in during the first set, Federer easily topped Murray 6-2 in the opening stanza.. After failing to consolidate a break at 2-0 in the second, Roger regrouped at 5-5, holding his own serve and then knocking four winners to take the decisive game at love. The domination continued to 5-0 in the third. CBS commentators Dick Enberg, Mary Carrillo and John McEnroe showered the elegant performance with praise, pooh-poohed talk of Federer’s premature demise and cheered Roger’s evolving strategy of going to the net more often.. Johnny Mac joked at about 6:50 p.m. that Federer knew the local news would come on at 7 p.m. for some of the network’s affiliates. A few loose strokes gave Murray two games, in lieu of a bagel.

When an overhead forced a Murray error, Federer finally grabbed his 13th Slam. Royal Roger was back and sports nuts were free to switch to ESPN and watch Aaron Rodgers’ debut at Lambeau Field on Monday Night Football.

And with his health returning, a more emotional on-court persona, a still-improving serve and a new taste for volleying, Federer’s artistry could reach new heights as he sates his hunger for tennis history in 2009.

Perhaps painting his masterpiece at the Open.