NEW YORK—If you’re wondering why Roger Federer has started so slowly—like, can’t-hit-a-ball-into-the-court slowly—in his first two matches at the US Open, you’re in good company. Federer has no idea himself.
“I don’t know,” the 20-time Grand Slam champion said when he was asked why he’s struggled so mightily in opening sets here so far. “I’ve been in that position many times where you go through a little phase where you don’t start so well and everybody asks you right away, ‘What are you going to do?’ You’re like, ‘I don’t know. Just go back to the drawing board. Just do the same things again.’ You hope for a better outcome.”
As he said, Federer has started slowly before, including at the US Open two years ago, when he struggled and staggered his way through two five-setters in his opening two rounds. But that year Federer was coming off a back injury; this year he says he feels healthy.
On Wednesday against Damir Dzumhur, it was Federer’s shots that ailed him. For the first four games, he had trouble making any of them. He missed his forehands by five feet, slapped his backhands into the net, stoned his volley and looked unsure of his movement. He finished the first set with 17 unforced errors. Gradually, though, starting late in the first set and accelerating from there, Federer found his feel for the ball. While he never completely shook himself free from Dzumhur, he finished with 16 aces and 58 winners in a 3-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 victory.
“When it happens in back to back matches, you know, it’s frustrating more than anything, especially when the level is that low, and there’s that many errors and the energy is not kind of there,” he said. “But, yeah, can only do better, which is a great thing moving forward.”
Some have wondered if Federer is still suffering from a sort of post-Wimbledon PTSD, after losing a five-hour final to Novak Djokovic in which he had two match points on his serve.
“Sometimes you have flashbacks, things like, ‘Oh, I could have done that, should have done that,’” Federer said earlier this week when he was asked about that defeat. “The next day you’re having a glass of wine with your wife thinking, ‘The semis was pretty good, even the finals was pretty good.’ You go in phases.”
“I was just upset more than sad. I think being upset made me get over that final much easier than being sad, dwelling on it too much.”
The closest that Federer came to an explanation for his first-set performance today came in a one-line aside about his footwork.
“It’s maybe something in the way you approach the ball, you know,” he said, before moving on to more optimistic thoughts. “I’m not concerned. It’s all good…because once I lose that first set, I do get better, which is a good thing.”
As far as whether these starts portend more trouble down the road, Federer said that two other things are more important to his chances: (1) his health, and (2) his draw.
“I think it has a lot to do also with your opponents, to be quite honest,” he said. “Sometimes you have tougher draws, sometimes not. Sometimes you carry an injury.”
In 2017, for example, Federer drew a player in the quarterfinals, Juan Martin del Potro, who had the game to take advantage of his vulnerabilities. Is there anyone like that lurking ahead in his section this time? In the next round, he’ll play either Lucas Pouille or Dan Evans; after that, he could face David Goffin. He’ll need to start faster against either of them.
To Federer, though, what matters is his own desire to win.
“Most important, in my opinion, is that you’re 100 percent ready to battle,” he said. “Are you in good shape, are you happy to be here?”
After today, Federer should be more than happy to still be here, with plenty of room to improve.
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