The Reliables

Sunday, August 17, 2014 /by
In turbulent times, Roger and Serena re-asserted themselves in Cincinnati. (AP Photos)
In turbulent times, Roger and Serena re-asserted themselves in Cincinnati. (AP Photos)

Each of them has 17 Grand Slam singles titles, and at their respective peaks, both of them routinely demolished opponents of the highest quality. One of them is already 33 years old, the other fast closing on that age. One of them is an American, the other a Swiss. One is a woman, the other a man, and both can speak with authority on the subject of stylists and hair-care products. I don’t think I need to write their names.

But write them I will, for Roger Federer and Serena Williams re-asserted their credentials as champions after a tumultuous few weeks—weeks during which Novak Djokovic was MIA, Eugenie Bouchard suffered a first-round humiliation at home in Montreal, Williams herself was beaten by her sister Venus for the first time since 2009, Andy Murray and Maria Sharapova went toes up, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vanquished four Top 10 players in Toronto.

But when the dust settled in Cincinnati, there they were once again. The Reliables. Roger and Serena.

In the ATP final, second-seeded Federer took care of No. 6 David Ferrer, 6-3, 1-6, 6-2. Once again, Federer attacked with something like impunity, and he appeared to be in greater command of the approach game than ever before. Could it be that Federer’s last great achievement in tennis will be re-inventing the slashing, chipping-and-charging, serving-and-volleying style of play?

In that regard, it’s about time that the self-effacing Swede Stefan Edberg received his due. Federer has made it clear over the years that he’s not happy to see a coach, whether it be his or anyone else’s, get undue credit for a player’s success. But it sometimes seems like Edberg, a childhood idol of Federer’s and one of the greatest serve-and-volleyers of all time, gets almost no credit at all. He doesn’t do press. Federer downplays Edberg’s role, and that’s just fine with Stefan.

But it appears that since taking on the job as Federer’s co-coach (with Swiss Davis Cup captain Severin Luthi), Edberg has finally convinced Federer that at this stage in his career, he is best served by attacking the net. Paul Annacone preached a similar message, but it didn’t really come to fruition until this year. I don’t know if Edberg did it by hook, crook, or hypnosis, but Federer is a different player this season, and the longer the year goes on more different he looks. This title in Cincinnati broke a four-match losing streak in Masters finals.

The caveats that Rafael Nadal has been out of commission and Djokovic, newly married and fresh off a win over Federer in the Wimbledon final, has just been treading water, are incidental. As Federer said after the match, “I know Rafa wasn’t here and Nole lost early, but you can’t control who you’re facing. Today I served well in the clutch, I was moving well and coming to the net and using my slice very effectively.”

That last point merits a closer look. Almost every player Federer meets these days goes after his backhand, hoping to break down the one-hander. Now, with his new volleying proclivities, Federer doesn’t have to take a big, topspin cut at such probings. Often, Federer got into trouble during rallies aimed at his backhand because his flat/topspin variation just wasn’t steady enough, while the slice gave up too much of the initiative. Now, using the slice in conjunction with his volley hasn’t just leveled the playing field somewhat, it’s also given him a new weapon.

Sure, it will be hard to attack the likes of Nadal and Djokovic with as much gusto and success as Federer has shown in recent matches. But if the courts at the U.S. Open are playing fast, Federer will be able to do much damage with that backhand slice. And that includes shortening the time he spends on court against the usual assortment of early-round opponents.

Williams, of course, is not particularly disposed to use slice. But then she hardly needs to. For many years now, her fans could rest comfortably in the knowledge that her raw power and serve were sufficient for imposing a measure of order on tour. But that conviction has been sorely tested this year, and Williams was unable to restore it until today—just in a nick of time, with the U.S. Open almost upon us.

The top performers in the U.S. Open Series at this point are, in order from the top, Serena, Angelique Kerber, Agnieszka Radwanska, Ana Ivanovic, and Venus. These are certainly turbulent times, as I recently discussed, and had Ivanovic won in Cincinnati, they would seem even more unsettled. Given the continuing troubles of Victoria Azarenka, the breakdown of Li Na, and the wildly fluctuating fortunes of Maria Sharapova, another failure in an important tournament by Williams would have left the WTA in what could be called a state of chaos on the eve of the U.S. Open.

But the Williams we saw in Cincinnati was the same woman who won 11 tournaments and compiled a 34-match winning streak in 2013. She probably did not wish to spend quite so much time for her U.S. Open tune-up this year—she played three consecutive weeks for the first time since 2007—but then she needed a lot of work. That happens when a vehicle has a lot of miles on the clock, and Williams turns 33 next month.

Chris Evert put it best from the commentary booth during the final, flat-out declaring that when Williams makes more winners than unforced errors, she’s well nigh unbeatable. That may not be stop-the-presses material, but it’s a handy barometer for gauging the state of Williams’ game. She had 23 winners in the final, compared to just 11 unforced errors. The present-day No. 1 throttled the resurgent former No. 1 in just an hour and two minutes, attaining a level of domination that had been missing from her game for most of the year, even when she managed to eke out matches.

One detail says all you need to know about this match. Ivanovic lost the first set when she hit back-to-back double faults, and Williams won the second set and the match when she fired out two aces, her 11th and 12th of the day, in the game that closed it out, 6-4, 6-1.

As Ivanovic so graciously put it in her first remark during the presentation ceremony, “I think today I just got a lesson in how to serve.” If it hurt Ivanovic to make that admission, you couldn’t tell by the great smile on her face.

When Williams got on the mic, she thanked her team as usual, and said of her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, “He’s been the calm to my storm.”

That storm is now heading to New York, as is the less turbulent but no less reliable Roger Federer.

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