NEW YORK—Roger Federer was asked after his five-set win over Gael Monfils on Thursday night what he had been thinking when he was down two match points in the fourth. Federer could have trotted out a classic players'  cliché, like, “I was just trying to hit my spot with my serve.” Or he could have spouted some Tennis Psychology 101, like, “I was trying to treat it like any other point.”

Instead, Federer, a little punchy with joy and relief, let loose with a giggling, stream-of-consciousness spiel about the conversation he had conducted in his head as stepped to the line to serve at 4-5, 15-40. Apparently, he had begun by telling himself, a little dejectedly, “This is the last point, man.” By the time he was done, he sounded even less confident than when he had started: “Just let him have it,” Federer instructed himself before he served.

You know what they say: Whatever works. By that point, Federer had tried pretty much everything else against Monfils. He had sliced his backhand low and softly to try to break up the Frenchman's rhythm early, and lost the first set. He had come with an all-out attack at the start of the second set, but that lost that one, too. He had worked hard to fire himself up in the third and fourth sets, and had found some success by draping himself all over the net. Yet here he stood, a point from defeat against a man he had beaten in seven of their nine previous matches.

“I was getting on his serve, you know,” Federer said, recounting his frustrations, “but I was just not hitting my forehand very well. Then on the serve I start to either over serve or whatever I was doing. It wasn’t working.”

“He started chipping very low,” Monfils said. “I think I handled it good. So then he stick with longer points. It was 50-50, and then he try to come to the net very often. It was a bit better for him. Then he suddenly start to mix everything. That’s why he’s the greatest player, because he can do everything.”

Federer won this match because he wouldn’t stop looking for a solution to the maddeningly gifted and unpredictable Monfils. The fact that Monfils is so famously flaky likely helped give Federer the motivation to keep trying, and the belief that something would eventually work. Federer finally found his solution at the net, and in that sense, if this wasn’t his best performance of 2014, it was the most representative of his resurgence this year.


Playing to the Last Point

Playing to the Last Point

It wasn’t so much the fact that Federer rushed the net 74 times and won 57 of those points. He actually said that he hadn’t come in as often as he would have liked, and that part of the reason those numbers were so high is that Monfils is fast enough to track down his biggest approach shots and force him to hit a volley.

“Today, I don’t think I was able to come in enough, really,” Federer said, “because I was just not hitting the ball well enough off the baseline.”

Federer won this one at the net not because of the number of times he came in, but because of the way he dug and fought when he was up there. Often in the past he has run through his volleys casually, happy to rely on his hands rather than getting his legs to do the dirty work. That has improved since he began to work with Stefan Edberg, but tonight, finally, Federer looked like a different, tougher, better volleyer. He took some difficult, dipping Monfils topspin passing shots and turned them into winning volleys.

As for Monfils, I wrote in my preview of this match that I had often wondered what tennis would have been like if he had been a Federer-esque champion, rather than a Monfilsian showman. We very nearly found out on Thursday night. He came out hitting big and playing fast, and he was the better player for two sets. The match’s early rallies reminded me of the rallies between Federer and Juan Martin del Potro in the 2009 U.S. Open final—in both cases, the younger player was pushing the older one back at the baseline.

Yet Monfils couldn’t quite make that edge pay; and in the end he couldn’t escape himself—if Federer is The Greatest, Monfils is The Great What If. The problem, looking back, wasn’t the two match points. Monfils’ only mistake on those was a short, tight forehand that Federer pounced on. The problem was what happened in the next game, at 5-5. Monfils double faulted twice, from deuce, and was broken. He would win just two games from there. That’s not something that's going to happen to Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal.

“You know,” Monfils said later of his fifth-set collapse, “it’s tough to handle it. I think I was down for five minutes. Roger just jumped on me.”

But La Monf being La Monf, he took it in his quietly philosophical way. Asked what he would tell his kids about this night, he said, “I’ll them Dad had a very good opportunity, and he did well.”


Playing to the Last Point

Playing to the Last Point

The more Federer spoke about this evening, the more it became clear what the crowd had meant to him. When he came back to win the fourth set, the atmosphere was as charged as I’ve ever heard it in Ashe. It reminded me of Andre Agassi’s great description of what the roar of a U.S. Open crowd felt like: “A combination of a jet engine and a giant heartbeat.”

“I felt very warm support for me,” Federer said in one of the understatements of the young century, “wanting me to go out, you know, fighting and believing I could turn this thing around, because that’s the feeling the crowd gave me. I think when the crowd gives you that, and there were thousands in the stadium, it grows your belief....I mean, New Yorkers, there is nobody like New Yorkers. I think once they clamp down and get into it, it really is special.”

(A reporter told Monfils that he believed the crowd had been equally supportive of both players. He asked whether he agreed: “Not really,” Monfils said.)

So what did Federer, who has lost twice on this court to Novak Djokovic from match points up, do when he was match points down? He started by making both of his first serves. On the first point, he hit a full-cut swing volley and watched, imagining the worst, as a Monfils backhand pass sailed long. On the second point, he drilled a fearsome forehand winner that detonated the stadium.

With his back to the wall, with nothing left to try, telling himself it was "the last point, man," Federer had gone back to what comes naturally. No tennis player has ever been better at that.