Shortly after Roger Federer dispatched Feliciano Lopez in the quarterfinals of the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati, he sat with ESPN’s commentators, talking about the audacious way he had just attacked and overcome one of the better attackers in game.
At 34 years of age and fresh off a match in which he had been lunging and darting like a teenager, you might have expected Federer to be icing a wrist or elbow, to wince as he shifted position, or at least to still show beads of perspiration across his forehead.
Instead, the 17-time Grand Slam singles champion looked fresh, his hair lustrous and neatly combed. He was animated and jolly. His cheeks, usually smooth as a baby’s bum, showed a few days of growth—was Federer suddenly trying to look roguish, in concert with the daring game he had been playing?
The commentators, as amazed as any spectators by the bold, aggressive nature of Federer’s game, quizzed him about his seemingly suicidal net forays, his ventures to take second serves from Lopez on the half-volley at the service line, approaches a teenaged Federer had once called “cheese slicers” that he followed forward to flick away volleys.
Did Federer really believe he could get away with that old-school, serve-and-volley legerdemain in the next round, when he faced the heavy baseline artillery of brilliant counterpuncher and defender, Andy Murray?
Federer laughed, “Why not?”
Those two words spoke volumes about present-day Federer, a player whose fortunes in his third decade on tour have been substantially—perhaps startlingly—improved by his ability to ask and act upon that question in a way no other player in recent memory has.
Why not, indeed.
Making good on his word, Federer continued to pursue his piratical game, eliminating Murray—who, coincidentally, had displaced Federer at No. 2 in the rankings just days earlier. Jolly Roger then met top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the final, and wrote a happy ending to this improbable saga that began when Federer was goofing around in practice before the Cincinnati event started.
“I did it in practice more as a joke, and I tried it again and again and again, and it just seems like it's not that hard for me to do,” Federer said about his half-volley returns after deploying them against Murray.
To make things more interesting in training, Federer began to experiment with various chip-and-charge tactics and applications. It felt so natural and seemed to work so well that he incorporated them into his earliest matches—and they bore fruit. By the end of the exercise, Federer had won a tournament that deserves as prominent a niche on a fan’s video bookshelf as any he has ever played.
This was Federer’s seventh singles title at Cincinnati and his 24th Masters tournament win. It was also the first time in his career that he had toppled the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the rankings in consecutive matches leading to a title.
Clearly, whatever lingering disappointment Federer might have felt after he lost the four-set Wimbledon final to Djokovic back in mid-July had long dissipated. Federer had also played more aggressively than before in that match, yet his game failed him at a few critical moments.
Federer never did watch a replay of that Wimbledon final to figure out where he might have gone wrong after playing as well as he ever had through six rounds at the All England Club. But his refusal had nothing to do with the bitterness of defeat, nor a loss of faith in his aggressive game plan. It certainly wasn’t a prideful act, either.
“I used to watch many more replays when I was younger,” Federer said. “Now I know the game better, I don’t want to sit through three, four hours of that. I don’t even know if I can do that anymore.”
The question left hanging after this last win is the same one that has haunted dramatists and theatrical producers for ages: Sure, it worked in Cincinnati, but will it play as well on Broadway in New York?
A Federer fanatic or serve-and-volley romantic might answer: Why not?
Well, there are a few reasons. The hard courts in Cincinnati are tailor-made for Federer’s game. They are smooth and slick, and the sunny, relatively dry weather at this year’s tournament certainly helped Federer, and all other offensive-minded players, in the last big U.S. Open tune-up.
“You always adapt to the surface,” Federer said. “Here, your shots can go through an opponent (come upon him quickly, and relatively low).”
Still, how many players would have connected the dots the way Federer did? Tennis players are a stubborn bunch, and in truth, Federer himself has been less rebel than reactionary through most of his career. He was was averse to change during his peak years at No. 1, even when Rafael Nadal was busy proving that Federer simply didn’t have the game to beat him on anything but a fast indoor court. Meanwhile, Djokovic and Murray were also peppering him with difficult questions from the baseline.
“I’ve played the transition game so much,” Federer told Patrick McEnroe last week. “Now playing more offense is different, and a lot of fun.”
Of course, there is offense and there is Offense, something easily forgotten in this era of four- and five-hour baseline battles featuring nuclear-grade forehand and backhand exchanges. Among other things, Federer’s demonstrations last week served to remind aficionados just how agreeable it can be to witness a crisp, 90-minute tussle featuring a dazzling array of shots hit from every quadrant on the court.
And it isn’t like the courts in Cincinnati were off the normal spectrum. By broad, historical standards, they probably fall somewhere in the medium-fast category. The reality is that nobody was performing above his pay grade despite the court speed; Lopez was the only quarterfinalist in Cincinnati who has an appetite for serve-and-volley tennis. Is it possible that somewhere along the line, other promoters will appreciate the value of speeding up the game the way they once flocked to slow it down?
It’s an interesting subject for conversation, but let’s remember that it wouldn’t even be taking place if it weren’t for Federer’s antics last week—or, perhaps, if Nadal were not in such straits. Federer has now nosed ahead of Djokovic in their head-to-head battle (21-20), but he still trails Nadal by wide margin of 10-23. They could play their next 10 Masters matches on ice and Federer still might not get the chance to even the score. But with Nadal less of a factor, attacking tennis might begin to look more viable.
One important difference will curb Federer’s appetite for attacking tennis come the U.S. Open: The Wilson balls used in Flushing Meadows play slower than relatively rigid Penn balls used in Cincinnati. As Djokovic said after the final, in which he didn’t have a break point and allowed Federer to complete the tournament without losing his serve once in 49 tries: “I think [Federer] is more aggressive here than in any other tournament because the surface and conditions allow him to play very fast. . . He likes this rhythm; I don’t too much. It was right tactics for him.”
Federer has no illusions about how difficult it will be to get into that “rhythm” at Flushing Meadows. He acknowledged in Cincinnati that the grittier surface and the different tennis balls in New York will make it harder to attack. On the other hand, the confidence dividend he reaped in Cincinnati is considerable. He’s spent over three years looking for another major title, and he’s been so close he can almost taste it.
"Now I've got the confidence,” Federer declared on Sunday. “I've got the matches, and I'm actually still feeling really fresh even after this week, because the matches have been rather short. I think I moved well. I was explosive moving forward.”
Will the milestone win provide Federer with enough of a boost to finally get him over the finish line at a major after two consecutive years as a bridesmaid at Wimbledon?
His own answer is the best one of all: Why not?