The Stars Spell “Roger”

by: Peter Bodo | August 22, 2014

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A five-time champion, Roger Federer won his first U.S. Open in 2004. (AP Photo)

The stars are aligning in a way that suggests that Roger Federer will put a potential capstone on his extraordinary career in some 20 days with a triumph at the U.S. Open. Make what you want of the theory. Dismiss it as outlandish. Call it insulting to his fellow contenders. Characterize it as the delusion of an undeclared Federer partisan. It’s okay by me and irrelevant to the topic anyway.

The topic being the fact that Federer is going to win his 18th Grand Slam title at Flushing Meadows, and there isn’t a danged thing the haters or his rivals can do about it. If it’s any consolation, just think how good you’ll feel if I’m wrong about this, and you thereby earn the right to puff up your chest and squawk like a rooster.

[For all of our U.S. Open picks, including dark horses and upset specials, click here.]

The funny thing is, I don’t even like making predictions. I’ve said it before: I’m interested in seeing and understanding what happens, not predicting it. But this time around, the case is just too compelling. And wouldn’t it be just terrific if a player who’s been an absolute paragon in this game fired at least one more majestic salvo?

Federer has come close, but he’s won just one Grand Slam title since the spring of 2010, that one in the summer of 2012. In the interim, he’s always been in the hunt—most recently a few weeks ago at Wimbledon, where he lost a close final to a younger, higher-ranked man in deep need of a win, Novak Djokovic. More important, Federer been competitive at almost every major, a quarterfinalist or better at 15 of the 18 majors since he won the 2010 Australian Open.

So Federer has been biding his time, awaiting his opportunity, keeping the faith. He’s seen Djokovic go soft again, and Rafael Nadal drop out. And now?

“I could have just not played here and gone into the Open feeling good about my chances,” Federer remarked after he backed up his runner-up finish in Toronto with a win in Cincinnati. “Now I feel even better, you know.

“On the flip coin, what was the other plan? Practice? Take a few days off? But then I have to grind it out in practice. I still believe matches are the best practice right now. I'm not going to fly back to Switzerland. I can just enjoy New York for what it is and go out to the practice courts and do the opposite of what I had to do last year.”

In 2013 Federer had three-hour practice sessions in New York, and he even pushed himself through practice sessions after some matches. He doesn’t feel he needs to do that this year. “I know my game is where I want it to be,” he said. “It's about just keeping that level up right now.”

But 2014 is a lot different from 2013 in many other ways, the most conspicuous being the absence of Nadal, a gift that just kept giving when the Spaniard’s decision to skip the tournament because of a lingering wrist injury ensured that Federer would receive the No. 2 seed. Federer won’t have Nadal’s 23-10 career advantage and 9-2 recent edge to worry about.

With the seeding bump, he also won’t need to fret about facing Djokovic until the final (Federer leads their head-to-head, 18-17; they are 2-2 this year). Djokovic didn’t even make the quarters in Toronto or Cincinnati. His game is in disarray. That’s three stars drifting into place, right there.

Among the other things that Federer won’t have to worry about, either, are major threats nearby. While Djokovic can grouse about a potential quarterfinal meeting with Andy Murray, Federer probably would be more than happy to face the only other Grand Slam champion in his half of the draw for a spot in the final—that unseeded, struggling veteran being Lleyton Hewitt. Superstitious types probably need not worry. Hewitt’s first round opponent is No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych.

Only one man has beaten Federer in a U.S. Open final in six opportunities. That was in 2009 when, in a resounding upset, Juan Martin del Potro won his first and to date only Grand Slam title. But like Nadal, del Potro is out of commission with a bad wrist. And you say you don’t believe in the music and movement of the celestial orbs?

The gods of the draw have put an interesting mix of stylish players in Federer’s path, like No. 17 seed Roberto Bautista Agut and No. 15 Fabio Fognini. But those types always need to bring two lunches to the fray because Federer will eat their first one, guaranteed. Ivo Karlovic could be a third-round stumbling block, and while giants with atomic serves are always dangerous, they’re like the proverbial broken clock that’s right twice a day. Nobody remembers how often they’re eliminated by the elites, just the odd upsets they pull off.

On form, Federer would meet up-and-coming Grigor Dimitrov, the No. 7 seed, in the quarterfinals. The next most dangerous opponents lurking in Federer’s quarter probably are the two talented Frenchmen, No. 12 Richard Gasquet and No. 20 Gael Monfils. But Gasquet has an abdominal strain and Monfils is more showman than assassin of champions.

The most dangerous obstacle for Federer might be Roger Federer, or at least the one who took a horrific fourth-round loss to Tommy Robredo last year, or who allowed David Ferrer to run off with the second set of the Cincinnati final last week. The Robredo match seemed significant because it came during a period of struggle for Federer, and looked like it might be a nail in the coffin of his career. But a lot has happened to Federer since then, all of it good. Before Robredo, his worst loss since he first won the U.S. Open in 2004 was to Berdych in the 2012 quarterfinals. The only player who’s been more consistent than Federer at the U.S. Open is Nadal at Roland Garros.

Still, one of the perils for an aging champ, as we saw in Federer's loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Toronto final, is that his game simply goes away more frequently, and for longer periods. One minute it’s there, and the next it’s gone. Poof! Just like that. The next thing he knows, he’s asking himself, “How did that happen?” There’s nothing Federer or anyone else can do about that, except remain vigilant. Nature, though, will run its course no matter what.

Federer seems to be in a situation comparable to the one that faced his pal Pete Sampras in the two years before he left the game. Sampras eventually did so in burst of glory with a win at the 2002 U.S. Open. Federer’s dilemma is far less desperate—Sampras was coming off a long title drought and took first- and second-round losses at, respectively, the French Open and Wimbledon. Federer, by contrast, has remained within comfortable striking distance at the Slams. He could futz around for a couple more years before he’s obliged to gaze upon any major as Armageddon.

But take a look up at the stars tonight and think about it: Wouldn’t a Federer win in New York be refreshing, not only to his fans, but to those who love tennis? It would certainly be the best thing that could happen to Federer at this stage in his career, but it would also be a great thing for the game itself.

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