After his four-set, opening round win over India’s Sumit Nagal, Roger Federer joked, “I played like my beard today. Rusty! I’m going to clean it up for my next match.”
As promised, the Swiss was back to his prim, clean-shaven self for the second-round clash against Damir Dzumhur on Wednesday. Sporting an all-white kit, as opposed to the jet black on the opening night, for the day match, the physical transformation could not have been starker. But Federer’s strokes still lacked the finesse at the beginning. The clean lines, effortless movement were missing, as the 38-year-old bludgeoned his way from one error to the other.
Like he had against Nagal, Federer, seeded third at US Open, dropped the first set against Dzumhur. He eventually tidied up, and even played some vintage tennis, to win 3-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4.
Federer has never lost before the third round at the US Open, where he is a five-time champion, since making his debut in 2000. And though he was able to shake off the rust, the 20-time Grand Slam champion has looked listless and sloppy. Federer is the prima donna of the tennis world, and not surprisingly, his slow starts have caused a ripple of concern.
A wise man once said correlation does not imply causation, but most tennis pundits are joining the dots, of Federer’s troubles to what happened at Wimbledon. The two missed championship points, at the age of 37 against one of his fiercest rivals (Novak Djokovic), had to hurt.
“I don’t think the lack of matchplay is as much of a concern just as much as the mental hangover from a match like Wimbledon,” said former US Open champion Andy Roddick, who has seen Federer work his magic closely.
“In 2016 he missed the last six months of the year, came back and his first pro tournament after being off with no matches going in was the Australian Open, which he won so, you know, it’s just a very Roger like way of doing things. My concern would be over the mental side of getting over a loss like that.”
Before the US Open, Federer admitted that he did take some time to flush the disappointment out of the system. To get over the Wimbledon defeat, he went caravanning with his family and played only one tune-up event on hard courts – the Cincinnati Open, where he lost in the third round to Andrey Rublev — before arriving in New York. Federer was bullish as usual coming into the Open, saying, “This is probably the best I've felt in years coming into the US Open.” But on court he has lacked conviction.
Like he had in the first round, Federer once again started the match against Dzumhur in a blaze of errors. Maybe a little uncomfortable with the court speed, a little unsure of the bounce, Federer struggled to find his range. The razor-thin margins that the Swiss works with means he runs the risk of hitting more errors than winners. But at the US Open, in the two sets he has lost, he has been missing the lines by a few feet.
Against Dzumhur, he had 17 errors to 8 winners in the opening stanza, and was 4-0 down, before breaking back once but eventually losing the set 6-3. The Bosnian, who was sporting the exact same kit as Nagal, is also a short (5’9) and canny counter-puncher who made use of every opportunity that came his way.
“I have been in that position many times where you go through a little phase where you don't start so well,” Federer said in retrospection. “When it happens like this back-to-back matches, it's just a bit frustrating more than anything, especially when the level is that low and there is that many errors and the energy is not kind of there. But I'm not concerned. It's all good and I just need to take the positives out of it, because once I lose that first set I do get better, which is a good thing.”
It took a break point in the opening game of the second set to wake Federer up to the task. Having saved that, Federer, moving and playing a lot more confidently, leaped to a 3-0 lead. Once he had got on an even footing, the strokes started flowing more freely. It was the Federer of old, playing aggressive, sharp tennis. One of the signs that Federer is starting to put it all back together is when he pulls off a perfectly placed, perfectly weighed out drop shot, and it came in the third game of the second set.
Federer buckled up on his service games, saving six out of six break points in the last three sets. In the three sets he won, the Swiss hit 50 winners and 28 unforced errors. Playing his 100th match at the US Open, Federer closed it out in two hours and 22 minutes, with a wide serve which Dzumhur only managed to stab long.
“I can't reinvent myself from today to the third round,” said Federer, who next takes on the winner of the match between Lucas Pouille and Dan Evans. “Tomorrow I will not practice over an hour, because I believe that all the hard work I have put in since Wimbledon and before, that I'm ready for that.”
Over the years, Federer has shown just how good he is at dusting off wins and defeats – treating those two impostors just the same, as Rudyard Kipling would say. The biggest test will be how he resurrects in the face of his most heart-breaking loss.
Updated Date: Aug 29, 2019 12:31:27 IST