Roger & Son

Tuesday, March 04, 2014 /by

“Honestly I think this is how you win your first title again after a while, and then hopefully from here on, it’s easier.”

That was how Roger Federer described his championship run in Dubai this weekend, after his first tournament win in nine months. The “this” in that sentence was a reference to how difficult his road had been. Federer was pushed to three sets by Radek Stepanek, Novak Djokovic, and Tomas Berdych; he started slowly in his last two matches; he struggled to find his serving rhythm much of the time; and he had to come from a set and a break down in the final against Berdych. 

So you could understand why Federer, despite his triumphant week, didn’t sound a triumphalist note. He even dropped the L-word when he talked about the final.

“Things definitely went my way out here tonight,” Federer said of his comeback against Berdych. “But, you know, I’ve had a lot tougher matches in the last one-and-a-half years, so this is nice to get a lucky break tonight.”

It wasn’t all, or even primarily, luck, of course, and Federer knows that. But his last two wins, over Djokovic and Berdych, were remarkably similar. Both times, Federer started slowly, served poorly in the early stages, and lost the first set 6-3. Both times, he briefly appeared to be heading for the same fate in the second set; against Djokovic, Federer saved a break point with a short-hop backhand pass at 2-2; against Berdych, he was broken at 2-2. Both times, the turnaround came in the fifth game of the second set, when his opponent suddenly couldn’t find the court. Djokovic and Berdych each opened their service games at 3-2 with unforced errors and were broken. 

Both times, it seemed to me, Federer’s reputation came into play. There’s been talk in recent years that the “locker room” is no longer as scared of the man as it once was. But that doesn’t mean playing Federer will ever be the same as playing anyone else. Since the 2011 U.S. Open, Federer has won one major and lost at the other eight; but each of the eight men who beat him went on to lose in the next round. I don’t think that’s a coincidence; crossing the finish line against Federer still takes a special mental effort, one that comes with a letdown afterward. 

You could see Djokovic and Berdych struggle and ultimately fail to make that special effort in Dubai. The Serb had won his last three matches over Federer, the Czech his last two—between them, they have 21 wins over the Maestro. Yet both played nervously when they had the lead, and lost belief when they fell behind. 

As Djokovic said afterward, when asked if he was disappointed by the defeat, “Look, I lost to Roger.” The point being: That’s not a huge shock. It’s not surprising that Federer, the man with the most Grand Slams, would cast the widest, longest-lasting aura of all.

Of course, Federer had to earn this title; he had his reputation during the last nine months, but he didn’t win anything then. In the semis in Dubai, he ran and defended extremely well. In the final, he found a way to take control of rallies as the match progressed, to give better than he got from the baseline against the hard-hitting Berdych. There’s been a lot of talk about how much more Federer is moving to the net, and a lot of credit given to Stefan Edberg for it. That seems premature for now. Federer came in 17 times in the semis (the same number as Djokovic) and 16 times in the final—not off-the-charts numbers for him in three-set matches. Still, it's something he should build on, because he does have the advantage over most of his opponents when he’s there. In the last game of the second set of the final, Berdych lost a point because he bungled a backhand volley. Federer won the next one by closing fast on his own backhand volley and timing it perfectly for a winner. Now that I think about it, its execution could be described as Edbergesque.

Federer said at the start of the year that he expected to be playing his best tennis in a few months. Judging by his comments after this win, he’s not there yet. If anything, that makes his title in Dubai more promising.

*****

“Belief is the only thing that kept me going today.”

Until recently—like, last week—those were not words many of us would have expected to come from the mouth of Grigor Dimitrov. Over the course of his five-year career, the young Bulgarian has been better known for his flair than he has for his fight.

But that was Dimitrov B.A.—Before Acapulco. His win there was remarkable, and possibly career-changing, in all kinds of ways. It was his second career title, after Stockholm last year, and his first 500. He recorded his first win in four tries over Andy Murray; Dimitrov hadn’t won a set in their three previous matches. After being broken while serving for the match at 5-4 in the third in this one, he survived. He won three straight long three-setters, the last two within 20 hours of each other, and went 5-0 for the week in tiebreakers. Even the man Dimitrov beat in the final, Kevin Anderson, praised him as a “great competitor.”

Dimitrov, who moved up to No. 16 in the rankings, has always been a shot-maker, and he came up with his share of stunning angles and touch shots. But it was his willingness to attack, to pounce, as well as his ability to endure physically, that was most impressive all week. 

Which matters more going forward, Federer’s title in Dubai or Baby Federer’s in Acapulco? In the immediate future, it’s probably Federer’s. As well as Dimitrov played in Mexico, his backhand remains a weakness—a weakness that’s getting stronger, yet can still be picked on by patient opponents. But in the long run, this could be a pivotal weekend in the Dimitrov story, in his transformation from boy to man. His new coach, Roger Rasheed, is known for his relentlessness and positivity, and Dimitrov needed a lot of both to survive Acapulco.

When Dimitrov pulled the honorary winner’s sombrero over his head in Acapulco, he smiled and asked, “Where’s my horse?”

He knows he's picking up speed.

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