NEW YORK—It was no walk in the park—Central, Corona or otherwise. Not by a long shot. But a day after hitting balls in the center of Manhattan, Roger Federer hit them just well enough on a center court in Queens, over five sets for the second time in two rounds of play at the US Open.
“I feel quite warmed up by now,” a relieved Federer told ESPN’s Darren Cahill after his latest escape in Arthur Ashe Stadium, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 over Mikhail Youzhny.
On Tuesday night under a roof, Federer outlasted Frances Tiafoe, a 19-year-old he had played just once before. On Thursday afternoon under clear skies, Federer outlasted Youzhny, a 35-year-old he had played—and beaten—16 times. No one beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row, but one person has beaten Mikhail Youzhny 17 times in a row.
In both matches, Federer exhibited early success and put himself in position for drama-free victories. Today, Federer won the first five games, and he served for a two-set lead.
In both matches, Federer’s opponent countered with unexpected surges. Among other forays, Youzhny broke Federer to prevent a two-set deficit, then amassed his own two-sets-to-one lead.
And in both matches, it was Federer’s fitness—the core of his success during his 2017 revival—that saw him through.
“This match wasn’t about the back, which is good,” said Federer in press. “This is more just a grind.”
Considering Federer’s outward appearance so far in Flushing Meadows, that may be hard to believe. He undoubtedly looks a step slower, far from the crisp form he displayed to a championship level at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. But it is still an edge Federer maintained against each of his younger opponents, and a reason he remains a factor in best-of-five-set play.
“When you're not feeling your best right away, you get broken or you lose sets, then it becomes a completely different match,” said Federer. “I think really Mikhail was also able to pick it up today. He was playing very well at one stage. Then you have to break the code again.”
Youzhny, whose powerful and pretty game was unusually and beneficially patient today, succumbed not only to Federer’s improved and more confident shotmaking in the fourth and fifth sets, but to his own physical shortcomings. (In the third set, Federer routinely dumped slice backhands into the net against no-pace balls, and had no feel on his forehand or serve.) With the match under two hours old in the third game of the fourth set, Youzhny began to grimace after longer rallies. Federer went on to break serve. He failed to serve out a set for the second time, but he broke Youzhny right back to force a decider.
The swelling intensity of the stadium crowd, completely in Federer’s favor, couldn’t have helped Youzhny’s cause. But much worse was a pulled muscle he tended to, while sitting down on the court after attempting to reach a Federer lob. It was the first sign in more than two sets that the seemingly preordained conclusion to this match would come to pass.
Walking gingerly, Youzhny double faulted at 2-3 in the fifth to give Federer an edge he wouldn’t relent.
“I was feeling there for Mikhail,” said Federer, who is now second behind Jimmy Connors in career victories at the US Open with 80. “We go way back. This was probably our best match; we had fun out there today.”
That assertion wasn’t reflected in the stat lines, particularly Federer’s 68 unforced errors (against 63 winners). After the third set, the eighth Federer had played at the US Open this year, the New York Times’ Ben Rothenberg tweeted that the Swiss had hit just 10 backhand winners and 48 backhand unforced errors. Add in Youzhny’s 27 winners to 55 unforced errors, and this professional tennis match occasionally resembled hacker vs. hacker action in a local park.
But for Federer, only positive takeaways would do.
“It is what it is. I’m pretty confident that I'm only going to get better from here,” said Federer, who will play southpaw Feliciano Lopez in the third round. “That's a good thing. Because I've played a lot, I definitely found some rhythm now, even though it's going to be a different serve coming my way, lefty.”
This is the first time Federer has ever started a Grand Slam tournament with two consecutive five-set matches, but both contests have been tidy, totaling just five hours and 45 minutes.
It’s also the first time he played Central Park, a popular topic of conversation as dawn turned to dusk in Corona Park.
“We were looking for if there was anyplace at all in the city to play tennis at,” said Federer. “Apparently [Central Park] has a US Open court. I was like, ‘Yeah, anything that doesn't make me drive very long.’
“We tried it out. It was perfect. I was really happy. It was really a totally different experience in the sense that when I finished practice, that was fun. If only all practices were like this.”
As the New York Post’s Cindy Adams would say: Only in New York, kids, only in New York.
Roger Federer's connection to New York City is unmistakable, both on and off the court. Before the US Open, TENNIS.com took a closer look at this unique bond between person and place through the eyes of celebrities, Federer's closest confidants and fans from around the five boroughs.
You can view all of our special Roger Federer & New York City content here.