A Two-Thirds Full Flight

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MELBOURNE—After Roger Federer’s last match, a straight-set, turn-back-the-clock, blitz-job win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth round, I listened to the rapturous response from the Federer faithful and decided to issue a note of caution. Yes, Federer had played rings around Jo. Yes, he had owned the net in a way that he may never have owned it in the past. Yes, his new racquet appeared to be giving him that elusive extra pop on his serves and returns. Yes, he had even added a shot to his arsenal, a line-licking backhand topspin lob. Still, I thought, we had seen this same masterful, throwback version of Federer in the middle rounds here in 2012 and 2013, and he had been unable to maintain his flawless form against his Big 4 peers in the semifinals.

On Wednesday night at Melbourne Park, Federer again faced one of those peers, Andy Murray, in what would be a truer test of where his current, Fedbergian level is. For two sets, Federer essentially threw my caution to the wind. He was every bit as good and as controlling as he had been against Tsonga. I thought that Murray would be able to drag him down from the heights, make a lot of returns, and work him over from the baseline. But it was Federer who took Murray out of his game, with an even more aggressive game plan than he had used with Jo; Federer’s confidence in his net game appeared to flow from one match to the next. As in the last round, with the crowd primed, he jumped on the net and up an early service break. By the start of the second set, Federer was making 81 percent of his first serves and was 14 of 17 at the net. Even Murray, a man with a winning record against Federer, was helpless against the onslaught.

For Federer, the key is feeling well enough to have a full range of tactical options.

Asked if he was “impressed” by his play last two days, Federer said, “Physically I know I can do it. And then because I’m feeling good physically, then I can really think about tactics I want to play, how aggressive or how passive do you want to play. I have all these opportunities now. I’ve been hitting the ball really well for some time now, so it’s just nice that it all came together in a big match against Murray like this.”

Federer was equally fine on defense when he needed to be, roaming the corners and digging out squash shots—doing, in short, what I had expected Murray to do to him.

“I definitely feel that’s what I used to do so well,” Federer said, “the transition game from defense to offense. I definitely sensed that today I am back physically. I’m explosive out there. I can get to balls. I’m not afraid to go for balls.”

Another rout was on, and the rapture of the faithful filled the air again, or at least my Twitter feed.

“The man is a sorcerer. #federer"

"Federer is pasting his backhand, approaching the net early and often, taking time away...this is 2006 Federer this event.”

“He’s playing classical tennis in a rock and roll world”

“Looks like someone opened a bottle of vintage Fed wine—smells like an ’06.”

But before I could begin to imagine what Federer might have smelled like in 2006, Twitter had gone quiet—it felt nervous in there. Apparently Federer had meant what he said about having the option to be passive or aggressive, because with the finish line in sight he began to abandon the latter and embrace the former. Federer, hanging back, was broken while serving for the match at 5-4 in the third. And he was just as docile when he held match points in the ensuing tiebreaker. From 6-4 up, Federer played not to lose; as often happens when a player tries this, he lost. Murray, in desperate-last-stand mode, won the last four points and the set. 

Credit must go to Murray for turning the tables. Like Tsonga, after being kept on a tight leash by Federer for the better part of three sets, Murray broke free and began to play with passion. "Anger" is the more precise word—Murray was unhappy with a missed not-up call on Federer by chair umpire Pascal Maria that cost him a point (replays showed Federer most likely did not get to the ball on one bounce). With a target for his frustration, Murray played his best, most aggressive tennis of the night to send it to a fourth set. But it wasn’t long before he handed the momentum back, and began to show signs of trouble physically. Murray’s serve speed plummeted as his movement became restricted; his recently repaired back was acting up. Yet Federer still struggled to stay aggressive in pressure moments. Blocking and chipping his returns instead of pressing forward, he let nine break points slip before finally converting on the 10th.

Does Federer still want to have it all, to win with his full arsenal of options rather than limiting himself to those that work the best? Or do nerves send him back into a baseline shell on big points? If so, he wouldn’t be the first. The next question is: What option will work best in the semifinals against Rafael Nadal? Federer thinks his new coach can help.

“I’m looking forward to speaking to Stefan [Edberg],” Federer said, “because when he came to Dubai [in the off-season], we clearly spoke about playing Rafa. He thought he had some good ideas.”

Should we maintain the note of caution about Federer’s chances in the semis? Nadal isn’t Murray, the same way Murray wasn’t Tsonga—Rafa is the next, and final, step up the ATP ladder. I think Federer can win against the blister-wracked Spaniard if he sticks with his aggressive tactics even when the inevitable struggles begin, even when the nerves come, even when the momentum isn’t going his way, even when he’s taking his lumps, even when he doesn’t smell like he did in 2006.

For now, though, Federer will be a fan. He said that he watched all of his friend Stan Wawrinka’s five-set win over Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals.

“When he wins big points,” Federer said, “I guess you do fist-pump. I high five with Mirka. At the end, I was standing up, hands in the air like him.”

Federer was happy for Wawrinka when he beat Djokovic. But can you see Roger and Mirka high-fiving and having the same number cross their minds while they do? They may not want to say it, but by beating Djokovic, Stan brought his friend significantly closer to Grand Slam No. 18. 

Still, Federer agrees with me: This is a moment for caution, not celebration.

Asked about the possibility of an all-Swiss final, he said, "Yeah, the moment you start thinking about that, we're taking the next flight home."

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