Rope-A-Dope

Sunday, September 10, 2006 /by

Federer It wasn't so much that Roger Federer made history tonight, Big History, too, not that anecdotal stuff suitable only for sports trivia freaks: best-winning-percentage-in-Masters-Series-quarterfinals history. By becoming the only man ever to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open three years in a row, Federer ventured into Borg territory (French Open and Wimbledon, three years running), yet even then, it wasn't so much that he made history than the way he made it, without appearing to be discomfited or needing to reach as deeply into his well of genius as the occassion seemed to demand.

Or, as Chris Clarey put it while we were watching the match: "He doesn't want you to see him sweat, but he's an athlete. It's a weird thing."

Oh, sure, Andy Roddick "competed hard" (his words). But he was playing the same catch-up game as James Blake was trapped in a few nights ago. Lose the first set, dig in and let-it-rip in an attempt to get back into the match but, once there, realize it's not a very comfortable place to camp. The Mighty Fed is the absolute master of Rope-a-Dope tennis; hurt your opponent quickly, then lay back on the ropes and allow him to punch himself out until he can't lift his arms. Then help the cornermen clean up the blood and gore on the mat.

Still, Roddick, to a greater extent than Blake, seemed to find a way to address Federer on terms other than his TMF's own. The heart of this match was the second and most of the third sets, when Roddick parlayed a big serve and a willingness to attack and pressure Federer into an equation that seemed at times to threaten him. As TMF said, in his presser: So I was very happy with the game in total because the start was great; the finish was great. What was in between, it doesn't really matter, so...

Roddick Ultimately, the game on which the match turned was the sixth game of the third set, a long game that Roddick ultimately held (fending off four break points). It was rope-a-dope at its finest, and it meant nothing that Roddick won the game; it took the sting out of his volleys and the specific gravity out of his forehand.  He  never pressed Federer again, and he was broken at 15 in the 12th game to give Federer the set.

But all of this had me wondering: what if this were Pat Rafter?  I don't know if there's a way to beat Federer on a tennis court (there probably isn't), but I think I've figured out a way to lose to him: play from the baseline, allow him to employ his full repertoire of shots, and keep him interested by encouraging him to engage in a little strategic problem solving. He handles that roughly the way a toddler does when he figures out that pressing the red button causes Elmo to say, "Gee, you're great!" It may take a little while to get there, but once he gets it worked out, he can make Elmo babble endlessly. So it is with TMF.

So the only way I can think of beating him - make that trying to beat him - is by simply not allowing him to play, or press the red button. Regrettably (or not, for who could ask for a more gracious champ than Federer?), this means playing a game that has gone the way of the wooden racquet and canvas tennis shoes: smothering, serve-and-volley tennis.

Only two characters at the upper level of the game that I can think of have tried that strategy, or a simulacrum of it, against TMF: Mario Ancic and, tonight, Andy Roddick. And neither of these guys has the attacking gene, bold and realistic as they have been in declaring: anything but a routine 2-4-1 loss followed by a press conference declaring Roger the Second Coming.

And don't for a moment think I'm suggesting you can beat Federer by simply throwing in a serve and rushing the net. That's not the point. But about this I'm pretty sure: Federer is not an overpowering player; the cardinal sin players commit in their matches with him is letting him play. The key to stopping Federer is not allowing him to be Federer, which you can accomplish by the tennis equivalent of Russian Roulette: you come in on almost everything, and hope that at some point, a fistful of aces, a few blown passing shots, and the general discomfort anyone feels in handcuffs begins to work its corrosive effect on his magical game. BTW, if you have any better ideas about how to beat Federer, please write.

Unfortunately, some of the lustre of the moment was lost during what turned out to be one of the silliest awards ceremonies I can remember. I mean, what the hell was Dick Enberg doing, turning over the moment to Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open tennis championships? What is this, IMG (agents for Federer and Woods) and Nike (sponsors of both Federer and Woods) suddenly getting all hopped up about this word, "synergy", and finding a guy gullible enough to ask: "Oh, jump? How high?"

Great. The upshot is a victory speech in which TMF shares about how hard it was for him and Tiger to hook up to watch each other play (haven't these guys heard of Backberries?).  Pass the barf bag, please. For the record, I would have preferred to hear a little more from and about the guys who played a match today, and what happened on that blue battlefield, even though it would have been a rueful tale.

This Federer-Woods globalist conspiracy deserves closer examination and further comment. But TMF just won his ninth Grand Slam, and who am I to rain on his parade? Besides, Federer just gave one of the all-time press conferences. It was so danged collegial, so full of banter, bonhomie, and good vibrations that I'm going to post the entire thing (below). But I'm going to keep thinking about this whole Tiger-Roger thing, sleep on it, and address it tomorrow, or Tuesday.

Well, after two weeks of double-session Grand Slam tennis, I feel like I've been rode hard and put away wet. I hope you all had a good time these two weeks. I know I sure did, and I had a final pleasant surprise: Right before the presentation ceremony tonight, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around to see a lovely young woman with a great smile, who said, "Hi. I'm D-Wiz." We chatted briefly, and then she was gone back into the tribal ether.

That's all for now. I'll leave you with the complete, unadulterated transcript from TMF's presser and add one other thing: Thanks, Steggy. I don't know what I'd do without you!

Roger Federer transcript:

ROGER FEDERER: Thanks for the patience (applause).

TIM CURRY: Questions, please.

Q. Playing golf with Tiger Woods?

ROGER FEDERER: Putting contest, yeah (smiling).

Q. Do you ever surprise yourself at how well you play this game?

ROGER FEDERER: Yeah, I do. I thought, you know, today was gonna be extremely tough. I had to make sure that, you know, I get his serves back and everything.

So there's never a guarantee for, you know, the way you feel out there and everything in a moment like this, especially against an American here at The Open. It's so hard. So I'm really, really happy how it went.

You know, I thought I played again fantastic, all the way through. The entire tournament was great. Whereas in Australia I struggled and everything. It was more like Wimbledon when I dominated from the start there.

Q. You've now played Andy Roddick. Do you notice any differences since he's worked with Jimmy Connors?

ROGER FEDERER: I definitely think his serve picked up again. The last time I played him, he was playing well in Cincinnati and Wimbledon, as well. So I didn't play him in that stretch when he had kind of a phase where he didn't play so well.

I think the key to his game is always his serve. He seems more steady off the backhand side than in the past. He maybe plays the percentage a little bit better now. When he comes to the net, his approach shots and everything are a bit better and everything. So I do feel a bit of an improvement since he's been with Jimmy maybe, yeah.

Q. You got nine Grand Slam titles now. You passed Agassi, Connors, Lendl. What does it mean to you?

ROGER FEDERER: I mean, am I the only guy who won nine? I don't know.

Q. Yes.

ROGER FEDERER: Yeah, it's nice (laughter). I don't want to stop here, I mean...

But I remember being in great company, you know, like when I reached six and then seven and eight, the same. There's always such great players on that level. Now I'm left alone at nine, you know.

So feels a bit strange, obviously, because I'm still going. It's been a fantastic season. Winning three Slams, it's unbelievable. Something I've done in '04, but I was in the finals of the French, so it's really incredible

Q. You were asked yesterday about the accomplishment of winning three consecutive Wimbledons and US Opens. You said you really can't think of it in that context, because there was still work to be done, you had to stay in the moment, think about the match ahead.

ROGER FEDERER: Hmm.

Q. Can you now put it in that context and think about the totality of that accomplishment?

ROGER FEDERER: Well, you know, it's funny because I think I came here first time as a Wimbledon champion in '03 and people were telling me like, Yeah, it's hardly ever happened, a guy winning Wimbledon and the US Open back?to?back. Even in the women's game, it hasn't happened that often.

I was like, Really? You know. I don't care really, I'm gonna try to win the Open anyhow. Look what happened, I've been on a roll since '04.

Of course, you know, I am surprised how well it went. But at the same time, I know I've given myself the best possible chance. And every time I enter a Slam, I'm so well?prepared, I'm playing so well, that in the end, maybe I'm not that surprised because the hard work is paying off, and the shot selection usually is always the right one. I come through the matches, I don't play so well, convincingly, it ends up that I arrive in the finals just feeling great, you know, so...

Q. Four years ago you hadn't won a Grand Slam title. In four years' time, you have nine. You're out on the court today during the ceremony and described as the greatest player to have ever played the game on the PA system. That's remarkable to have that mantle in four years' time.

ROGER FEDERER: Yeah, no, I totally agree. That's where you see how much I struggled, too, you know. Early on in my career, I couldn't win the Masters Series, couldn't win the Slams, was struggling to win other titles. Needed a change of attitude towards the game, you know, to kind of turn the corner. I did that so well that it paid off incredibly, you know.

I always knew that I was talented, I had potential and everything. But I think, you know, that's maybe sometimes there for like a Slam or so, but after that, it just is a different league, you know, winning so many.

I'm shocked myself how well it's been going the last three, four years, because being not only compared to former great tennis players, but now especially also other great athletes all over sports, it's just really nice.

Q. He made a big push at the end of the second set. At the end of the third, it seemed like you rose a little bit. You liked the moment, you liked being push. You wanted to see how well you responded. Then you break him nicely and soar. Just like you did against Andre.

ROGER FEDERER: It's very similar, yeah.

Q. Describe being in those moments when you're pushed, being able to bring it a level up.

ROGER FEDERER: Well, I mean, I was definitely, you know, under pressure in the third set. I felt like Andy was starting to play better, serve better. I had to wait for the moment when he had a game where he wasn't quite on. Up until that moment, I had to make sure I held my serve. That's why that game at Love?40 was crucial. I knew that could kind of hurt him mentally a little bit maybe. Then also I knew that that gave me another chance, you know, a look at his serves. Then go ahead.

That's exactly what happened towards the end of the third. He had a terrible game. I took advantage of it. From then on, didn't look back. I started to feel better, play more freely, and in the end I played unbelievable.

So I was very happy with the game in total because the start was great; the finish was great. What was in between, it doesn't really matter, so...

That's what was great about it.

Q. At the end of it, you flopped down on your back. You seemed elated, but maybe also a little bit relieved. Could you describe, you know, why that reaction, and maybe was it because Andy really pushed you in the middle two sets?

ROGER FEDERER: I think this is a huge Grand Slam, you know (smiling).

Just felt like this is a great moment, once again, in my career. I deserved to lie down (laughter). Kind of give myself a break. From standing up, sitting down and everything, I just thought lying down would be more comfortable. Thank God I didn't injure myself (laughter).

I haven't seen it yet in replay, but one thing's for sure: I felt great, you know, lying there on the floor alone. It was good. Good feeling.

Q. Back a couple years ago there was so much talk about how Tiger was so far ahead of his competitors, and now, of course, he was watching you here today. Do you feel like the gap between you and perhaps No. 2 and No. 3 is closing? Andy said perhaps the gap was closed a little bit today when he played you. Do you feel like the gap is closing?

ROGER FEDERER: I don't know. I mean, as long as I'm on top, I guess it doesn't really matter.

No, I felt like after the great clay court season, you know, of Raf, I was under pressure, you know, for sure to do well in Wimbledon because he proved that, again, how well he plays on clay. He put the pressure on me for the grass court season to do it all over again, myself, too, like he did on clay. This is really when I felt the pressure.

After winning Wimbledon, I sort of said, Okay, whoever wins the US Open I guess is really better. So came here and won, so it's fantastic. Now I totally deserve to be No. 1 for the rest of the season, and hopefully I can back it up again next season.

But I think, you know, with guys like Hewitt and Agassi ? sorry, Roddick ? and Safin playing better, I think you always got to give these guys also a bigger chance of coming back, you know, stronger. A new guy like ? I don't know who ? but you could say the gap is closing.

But at the same time, I'm playing so well and so consistent that it's going to be hard for them to pass me at the moment. That's for sure.

Q. You had the wonderful privilege to chat with Tiger, and of course most of that was private.

ROGER FEDERER: Tried to come in, didn't you (smiling)? Were you the only guy or no?

Q. I did speak with Tiger.

ROGER FEDERER: You did? Well done.

Q. He said you got to work on your backhand.

ROGER FEDERER: Oh...

Q. Anyway, kidding aside, we all would have loved to have been in there. Could you just share a little bit of your sense of him as a man and also as an athlete.

ROGER FEDERER: Well, I mean, for me, of course, it's very nice to get to meet him finally after all the time we've been trying to get to see each other in Shanghai. I remember I was there in Dubai when he was there. He plays so much in the States, that when I'm here, you would think that we would get a chance to see each other. Our schedules, they collide.

More and more often, you know, over the last year or so, I've been kind of compared to Tiger, what he's doing on the golf tour, me doing on the tennis tour. So today was kind of the day where finally we got to meet and chat a little longer.

I asked him how it was for him. It's funny, you know, because many things were similar. He knew exactly how I kind of felt out on the court. That's something that I haven't felt before, you know, a guy who knows how it feels to feel invincible at times and, you know, when you just have the feeling like there's nothing going wrong any more. In the fourth set, for instance, it's, I guess, for him on the final round, he knows exactly how it feels.

That's what was so interesting to talk to him about. Of course that's not all we talked about. We talked about other things, but it was just really great fun to get to meet him. My parents are great golfers, so he was nice enough to talk to them, as well, over the phone. They're not in bed yet, so it was great. He's very nice, and much nicer than I expected. I thought him to be nice, but he's really, really nice, so that's nice.

Q. He didn't give you his hat, did he?

ROGER FEDERER: No. I tried. I tried to get it, but... (laughter). He didn't even want to sign it for me (smiling). It was tough, you know. Signatures and interviews these days.

Q. He's a tough customer.

ROGER FEDERER: Yeah (smiling).

Q. How do you handle, day by day, the pressure and the expectations after all you've done?

ROGER FEDERER: I don't have pressure walking through the streets, I tell you that, no. It's okay, you know. I've gotten used to it. No, it's okay by now, you know. I used to feel pressure when I was young and people were saying, This guy's got some talent, but he can't get his mind right, he's not fit enough. This stuff hurt me, you know, back then.

I was at a junction, I don't know how to say, which road do I want to take, the talented road or the hard?working road. I chose for the hard?working road and it paid off.

The pressure for me now, it's what I enjoy. I like getting goosebumps walking out on center court and serving for the match. These are the moments which you dream for. It's not like it's ?? I guess eventually once I retire, it's kind of like, Finally, it's gone. But at the moment, I enjoy it.

Q. How many more tournaments will you play this year, do you think?

ROGER FEDERER: The plan is to play Davis Cup, Tokyo, Madrid, Basel, Paris and Shanghai. That's the plan. For the moment, I feel good. I'm not injured yet. I've been a little bit unlucky at the end of the years the last two, three years. Hopefully, this time it will work out for me

Q. You mentioned after Paris that you felt pressure because of what Rafa had done. How much sort of satisfaction does it give you now to finish the US Open, know that you've proved to yourself that you are the No. 1?

ROGER FEDERER: I mean, it's ?? now, what I look at actually is winning three, being in the finals of one. That's what I look at. That's what it comes down to, I think.

It's funny, because in the beginning of the year, you know, I was ?? especially after the Australian Open as it's so early, I was hoping, Maybe I can win the Slam. Tony said I'll come to The Open if you win Wimbledon and the French, too. He's not here, so... (laughter).

Still worked out. Still get so close to the Slam, it's fantastic. I'm happy the Slams are over because it's hard work. You know, like you said, a lot of pressure. But I'm happy to kind of sit back a bit and relax. It's just not thinking of any rival at the moment, it's just really the wins, you know, the great season I've had so far. Four Slams are over and I played fantastic in all of them, so it's all good.

Q. What goals have you set for next year?

ROGER FEDERER: I haven't decided yet.

Q. You haven't?

ROGER FEDERER: No.

Q. You said during the ceremony when it was pointed out that Tiger Woods was in your corner that, Yeah, I had some pressure. I did notice that when they flashed him up on the board there, everybody applauded, that you had four or five points that you lost.

ROGER FEDERER: I don't remember

Q. Did you feel any pressure having him there? Was there any moment where you might have thought the guy's watching you?

ROGER FEDERER: Yeah, no, you get that feeling. It's like ?? I don't know how you can relate to it, but, you know, it's like maybe the first time your parents see you do something special, or somebody comes to you, you really maybe look up to, or maybe in the game ? I don't know. Like if the best?ever journalist would be looking at you guys asking every question, you would go like, I make sure it's a good question.

For me, it's like when I go out there and I see, you know, Tiger sitting there, it's like, you know, I try to play well, you know? I try to, you know, kind of get my act together and focus and get off to a good start, you know.

I remember having this many, many times in my career where, you know, like in the very beginning, Marc Rosset would come watch me play because he was the No. 1 tennis player in Switzerland. When you get to guys coming over to watch your matches, you kind of look over in the box and go, Okay, I know you're here and I hope I do well. It's extra pressure.

That's why I try not to go to see the Swiss guys too much, because I know what it could do for them, you know. They look in the box and say, Oh, shit, Roger's here (laughter). So I'd rather watch them on TV. But I can handle it by now, you know. But, still, it still hits me, yes, it does

Q. When you're old and gray, you can help the younger guys out.

ROGER FEDERER: Yeah, maybe then (smiling). Got to be a good question, rest of the guys watching you.

Q. Are you surprised at Rafael's loss?

ROGER FEDERER: Yeah, little bit. We all knew that Youzhny had his chance, but I still would have picked him to come through. So a bit of a surprise, yes.

Q. Second quick question.

ROGER FEDERER: Uh?hmm.

Q. Your English, did you learn it back in your country or pick it up on tour?

ROGER FEDERER: Give you a little hint now. My mom's South African, so I got it from her, yeah.

Q. You know when you go to the supermarket, they give you two products for one ??

ROGER FEDERER: Okay. This is gonna be funny now, I think (laughing).

Q. Next year, say two Slams for Roland Garros, or five Masters Series for...

ROGER FEDERER: I think you always ask me questions like about the French, try to put me...

Q. He likes that.

ROGER FEDERER: He likes that, huh? I always say the same thing, you know. Wimbledon counts more for me.

Q. At this point?

ROGER FEDERER: Look, I don't know. It's like so nice to win the US Open, so why would I want to try for the French?

Q. To prove that on clay you're the best.

ROGER FEDERER: I know I'm good on clay.

Q. You are the best.

ROGER FEDERER: Not the best at the moment, yeah. But if Rafa wouldn't be in a round, maybe I would have won it by now.

No, I don't know. All I can try to do is give myself the best chance, you know? That's what I've been doing really the last especially two or three years. And before that, I just was not good enough, I think. I lost early a few times.

This time around, I really believe I can win, you know. Whereas before, I thought it's too tough, too long, too hard and everything. I doubted myself from the early rounds on.

But now, being so dominant in all the other Slams, I know I can win the French, you know. Nadal here or not, I know I could beat him, too, because I was so close.

Q. Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about your run is that you've done a lot of it without a coach. I know Tony comes in and out. There are times during matches where you get in trouble. Do you ever think, Maybe I should have brought someone along? You've learned to think through things pretty clearly, like the switch, how you returned the serve today from blocking it. Do you ever doubt that in a match, Maybe I should have had someone go out and scout?

ROGER FEDERER: Never had that feeling. Never. I mean, when I split with Peter at the end of '03, I knew the decision was tough and everything, but of course I was a bit worried going into the Australian Open. But after winning that, becoming No. 1 in the world, I kind of told myself that it's still the right decision to take because I can still play well.

I remember looking up in the box and best friend of mine was there and my girlfriend was there. They were giving me, you know, a good feeling about what I'm doing. I remember never looking up into the box going, I wish ? whoever ? was there, best coach in the world. Because I have such unbelievable belief in my own game and understanding about my shot selection and everything that I always need to look up there (sic). That's why I'm against coaching on the tour, you know, on court. Because I think the work is done beforehand and not during a match.

And if you try to change it up, I always believe it doesn't work. It's the instinct in the end that takes over. That's how it is for me. In the fourth set, total instinct took over, and I dominated Andy.

That's what I'm talking about.

Q. Does it surprise you, then, that Maria has her father in the box telling her when to drink and when to eat a banana when you don't need a coach to tell you that?

ROGER FEDERER: (Smiling). What do you think I think when I see this? (the trophy)I mean...

Yeah, look, telling you when to drink and eat a banana and stuff, it's like, you know, seriously, is that gonna make the backhand go in on breakpoint and stuff in, no. So, I mean, I smile at it because.

Q. Just in case the banana means not only a banana, I guess.

ROGER FEDERER: Yeah, who knows. You're smart, actually (smiling).

Q. Tiger and Annika have a friendly rivalry where they call each other after they win a major. Do you have anything like that with him?

ROGER FEDERER: Not yet. He says I'm three behind, so, he's going...

Q. Two behind, I think.

ROGER FEDERER: Is he two behind? He's got 12. I wish.

Who knows? I wouldn't be surprised if I get a message next time when he wins, yeah. I wouldn't be surprised at all.

Q. Winning for the third straight year here in New York, do you think it will help raise your profile in America in terms of the popularity, and maybe in endorsements, too?

ROGER FEDERER: I guess so (laughing). I don't really care, honestly. I cared four years ago if I was more famous here or not. I mean, I have great fans here in the States. I've had an unbelievable run here in this country, and I feel they really support me a lot. You know, I would like to thank them, because it's not the ordinary, you know, that they always support you being from somewhere else.

So I definitely think, you know, it helps. But, look, in the end, I just love this game. If I get more endorsements, that's nice. But in the end, it's about this (points to trophy) and not about the rest, so...

Q. Do you feel you had more support tonight than you did when you played Blake?

ROGER FEDERER: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

Q. Would you attribute that to the way you play?

ROGER FEDERER: Don't know. It's hard to answer. It's up to you to find out why

Q. I'm going to start looking into it.

ROGER FEDERER: Please do (smiling).

Maybe the finals, maybe they start to appreciate, you know, my way of being on the court, you know. Obviously, with the success, you know, you gain more and more fans. Just the way maybe the match turned out to be, I don't know. It's just they never got into it like they did against Blake or Agassi last year, so...

Q. So Tiger shows up today, puts extra pressure on you showing up at the US Open finals. Next year will you go to the Masters?

ROGER FEDERER: I'm going to go to each Masters, each Grand Slam he plays and get him back, you know (laughter). I'm gonna tell him, I'm gonna come when you're about to win a major, when you're out on the 18th green, I'll be standing there.

He knows he has to be in the winning position. That's how I felt, you know, like when he told me he's gonna come for the finals. I was like, Oh, nice. Let me first do the dirty work getting there, you know.

So, no, we spoke about it, you know, trying to go to a major. I hope I can do it next year, yes.

Q. Think you'll be as happy if you ever lose here at The Open? If you come to a press conference after a loss at the US Open?

ROGER FEDERER: You never know. I wouldn't be surprised (smiling).

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