The score was tied at one game apiece in the third set, after Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic had split the first two sets in their US Open semifinal on Arthur Ashe stadium today. You wouldn't exactly call it a critical point in the match, but it was suddenly deuce and breaking Djokovic in that third game - especially after Djokovic had wasted a 40-15 lead - might have enabled Federer to grab momentum by the scruff of its slippery neck.
Djokovic served, Federer returned. They exchanged two or three shots and Federer just loaded up on the forehand side and met the ball with all his weight moving forward, the racket a blur, seeming to recoil from the shot as the ball sizzled down the line to Djokovic's forehand. Djokovic scrambled to his right, managed to stretch and get his racket on the ball, and sent it back more or less down the middle. Federer was there, waiting to hit the inside-out forehand to Djokovic's backhand corner for a winner.
But this time, the racket didn't seem to travel as fast, and that familiar sense that Federer can push the boundary between absolute control and reckless abandon further out front than any player, past or present, was missing. This time, the master of the Controlled shot (upper case intentional) settled for a. . . controlled shot
The forehand sailed over the baseline and landed out, giving Djokovic the advantage; he teased another error out of Federer to take the game and lead, 2-1. It wasn't the most significant of games, but the point I described above was telling, for it was one point in which we clearly saw both of the Federers that have been on display here for two weeks.
We saw the Federer who won three of his previous five matches in straight sets, as well as the Federer who was pushed to five sets by Igor Andreev, and who has often appeared grim, listless, cranky, and, when he wasn't being peevish (did you see the way, in some previous matches, he reacted to a potentially blown calls by flamboyantly flinging out his arm and shouting "challenge!")? Federer might very well win Monday's final. And it's intriguing that while he's played pretty danged well, many people remain convinced that he's in a slump. That point-of-view says less about previously suppressed, latent anti-Federer sentiments boiling to the surface now that he's been looking vulnerable than it does about a few of the critical and typically Federer-esque elements that have been missing from his spirit, if not his game.
I'm not saying tennis players are duty-bound to exude a sense of well-being, or the air of command to which only the very best are entitled; I'm just suggesting that it's odd to for Federer to be playing - win or lose - without those familiar projections. Federer used to to make winning look easy, these past two weeks he's made it look hard. The towering reality is that he's still winning, but the subtexts help explain why's seen as struggling - why a surprising (or not, given recent events) degree of apprehension and caution have crept into the way he's regarded, much like they seem to have filtered into his game.
At times this tournament, Federer has resembled nothing more than a distracted man who's misplaced his car keys and is wandering around the apartment looking for them while thinking about other things. He's going to find those keys; he knows they're around here somewhere, yet. . . where are the danged keys!!!!! He's been brooding, and at one point during his unexpectedly tough quarterfinal battle with Gilles Muller, I jotted the note that if I had to guess what he was thinking, it would have been: Man, this is a drag, but I guess I've got to hang in here because if I lose this match i'll probably feel even worse.
I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a mind reader, but at the same time I believe people give away a lot with their facial expressions and body language. The other way to look at this - and Federer KADs undoubtedly would prefer it - is that Federer suddenly has become very good at something at which his pal Pete Sampras was expert - looking bad but playing well. Don't feel badly if you don't understand - it's a champ thing.
A comment Federer made in his post-match presser on the subject of his increasing tendency to show his emotions is relevant to this discussion: ". . . It is true I am trying to push myself, you know, not to be actually more emotional but (rather) to try to play well." In other words, he's less interested in venting, or expressing his feelings, than in using them to lift his game. The difference between playing well as a matter of course, and searching for ways to motivate yourself to play well, often while looking utterly disengaged, is the difference between a 21-year old aspiring talent and a veteran champion who's at the stage in his career when appetite is no longer his driving force.
But it wasn't like Federer needed to grope for extra motivation against Djokovic; the young Serb is one of the few players capable of striking real fear in Federer's heart, and the role fear plays in the show of courage is generally underestimated. Having seen how Djokovic came out and tore into Andy Roddick the other night, Federer knew that if he wasn't on his game he'd get ripped to shreds. So he came out today and played his best set of the tournament; he converted 83 percent of his first serves, and made twice as many forehand winners (6) as unforced errors of any kind (3).
This was high-grade Federer, and Djokovic didn't really know what hit him, nor was able to sustain the requisite level of play to get Federer out of his grille once he did reach that rarefied zone. Djokovic found his leg strength, the length on his shots, and his focus in the second set and part of the third, and while Federer sometimes lapsed and took his foot off the accelerator, he gave it the gas when he most needed it - on the uphill portions of the match. He broke Djokovic for 6-5 in the second set and served it out with little trouble. In set 4, Federer pushed Djokovic until he crumbled, and he reeled off the last four games running. His game is no longer a flood tide; it now ebbs and swells in intervals through a match, and today it reached the high-water mark at the times when it really mattered.
Federer was helped along by the New York crowd, which has embraced him in a way that might have puzzled or perhaps even irritated at least one onlooker, fist-pumping, camera-addressing, crotch-grabbing, Krickstein-beating (and here poor Aaron thought Marcos Baghdatis had taken him off the hook. . .), gut-spilling, cliche-spewing Jimmy Connors. The crowd undoubtedly appreciated Connors - after all, what greater viewing pleasure is there than, to borrow Jimbo's own analogy, seeing his pale entrails spilled out and gleaming wetly on a black puddle of blood on Deco-turf?
Maybe watching a supremely gifted champion who embodies class grappling with and overcoming his own demons while discreetly keeping his intestines packed in his tummy? Just a thought. . .
Someone asked Federer if the ovations he received along with the frequent cries of encouragment and support, meant much to him. He answered: "Yeah, I said it from the start. It would be great if I do get, you know, a lot of fan support. I don't count on it because I'm not American, but I feel a little bit New Yorker right now."
Perhaps that also explains why Roger has shown fewer of his customary inhibitions lately, and has felt free to bellow, roar, challenge calls with a dismissive swipe of the hand, and clench his fist and spit, "Yes!" Next thing you know, this guy may be shoving aside little old ladies to jump in a free taxi, or plunking down $800 for a haircut. Having a little tete-a-tete with Anna Wintour during Fashion Week? No way, you say? Mark my words. . .
During the presser, Willie from ESPN asked: "Given the expectations you have of yourself, and that everybody has of you, now that you're in your third straight slam final, how would you describe your year?"
Federer replied, "Let's wait another day and then I will answer that question."
Willie pressed on: "How will you describe it if you win at the end of that?"
Federer has this gaze that he sometimes levels at a journalist, sizing up the man or woman but in a way that is neither menacing nor dismissive. He said, "You can't wait, eh?" He waited for everyone to stop laughing, then softened his tone and added: "Yeah, I don't know. Give me 35 hours, and then we'll sit down with something to drink and I'll tell you everything."
Again, everyone laughed.
I jotted a note, reminding myself to ask Willie if he would mind if I tagged along for that one.