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By Chris Oddo | Monday, July 21, 2014

 
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Roger Federer was a few games from winning his 18th major at Wimbledon. What will he do for an encore in New York?

Photo Source: Al Bello/ Getty

He was close. On the precipice close. You can feel it, taste it close. Holding a break point at 3-all in the fifth set of the Wimbledon final, it looked and felt like Roger Federer was about to rewrite the history books once again. After rallying from a break down in the fourth set twice, saving match point in the process, the Swiss maestro was about to put the finishing touches on one of the greatest Wimbledon final comebacks of all-time.

He could have become the first man to win Wimbledon after saving a match point in the final since 1948. He could have become the first man in history to own eight Wimbledon titles. Would of, could of, but didn’t.

In the end, June 6th, 2014 was Novak Djokovic’s day. The Serb came good, fighting off Federer’s best to win his seventh Grand Slam title, and before the dust had settled on Wimbledon’s torn and tattered Centre Court, the rapidly circulating and painfully poignant question was: “Was that Roger’s last chance to win a major?”

Put down your handkerchiefs Federer fans, because we’re here to tell you it was not. In fact, Federer will have a pretty good chance to win back the U.S. Open for the first time since 2008 this summer. Here’s why:

Reason No. 1: Federer Gained Confidence from Wimbledon

Let’s be frank: 2013 was a crisis of confidence for Federer. The back was bugging him and it never stopped bugging him. The racquet change was on his mind but Federer wasn’t fully committed to the change, and he didn’t play with confidence with either frame. Losses came at an alarming—for Federer—rate and even the wins were a tad uglier than usual. Federer’s normally effortless, ballet-like performances were suddenly grinding wars of attrition. There were six losses to players ranked outside of the top 20 and a gaggle of close calls that had us all wondering if we were witnessing the end of the mighty Fed as we once knew him.

But that has changed in 2014—and quite drastically. Federer, who went 4-10 vs. the top ten in 2013, is 8-4 against the tour’s elite in 2014. He’s in perfect health, and that perfect health has manifested itself in better movement and better serving.

That confidence, in part, helped lead Federer to the Wimbledon final, where he was two games away from winning a record eighth title. Was the fact that Federer didn’t close the deal against Djokovic a heartbreaking way to squander a last chance at Grand Slam glory?

Federer doesn’t think so: “You've just got to wait and see,” he said after the Wimbledon final. “There is no guarantee that you're going to be ever there again or not. Or maybe there's much more to come. It's really impossible to answer that question. I'm very happy to see that with feeling normal I can produce a performance like I did the last two weeks. That clearly makes me believe that this was just a stepping stone to many more great things in the future.”

Though most pundits believe that Wimbledon, because of its fast, low-bouncing surface, is Federer’s best chance to win a major, it seems that many are overlooking the fact that Federer is a five-time U.S. Open champion with a game that is well-suited for that surface in the same ways that it is well-suited for Wimbledon’s grass. And if Federer, who has long been a master at building and then maintaining momentum for long stretches during his career, is indeed viewing his Wimbledon final as a stepping stone to bigger things, then he ought to be in high gear when the North American hard-court swing gets underway in early August.

Federer will not be the favorite in New York, but clearly he is one of the favorites, with a very good chance to turn around his recent fortunes at Flushing Meadows.

Reason No. 2: The Big Four is Vulnerable

As we round the bend and make our way to the final Grand Slam of 2014, one thing is abundantly clear to even the casual observer. The big four isn’t what it once was. Sure, it may be close, but with Andy Murray still in his post Wimbledon-winning, post-back surgery-having, post-Mauresmo-hiring tailspin (when will it end?) and Rafael Nadal’s form difficult to gauge after his somewhat tumultuous season that has featured battles with injuries and a mini confidence crisis as well, tennis’s top four doesn’t seem impervious to earth-shattering upsets as it has been in year’s past.

What happened at Wimbledon is a perfect example. Nadal fell to the upstart NIck Kyrgios in the round of 16, who then fell to Milos Raonic in the quarterfinals. What it amounted to for Federer was an easy, non-taxing semifinal against a player who had no experience at that level of a Slam, which set him up perfectly to make a run at Djokovic in the final. If the same type of chaos occurs in New York, you can bet that an in-form Federer will be drooling over the prospects.

Of the big four, the player with the most confidence and in the best form is Novak Djokovic. The Serb will no doubt be a terror this summer, with wind in his sails from his seventh Grand Slam title at Wimbledon and his marriage and impending birth of his first child, but Federer v. Djokovic, historically, has been a coin flip, as their head-to-head (Federer leads 18-17) suggests. Though Djokovic has taken 11 of the last 16 battles, Federer made it clear at Wimbledon that he is currently able to stand toe-to-toe with the Serb even when he’s playing his best tennis.

Reason No. 3: The U.S. Open is the perfect hard court for Federer’s aggressive game.

In recent years, many have made the argument that the hard courts at Flushing Meadows are actually faster than Wimbledon’s grass. That's good news for Federer, especially when he's playing the type of confident first-strike tennis that he played at Wimbledon. Though Federer hasn’t been back to the U.S. Open final since 2009, this fact doesn’t necessarily mean that Federer can no longer be a factor in New York. Federer failed to make the U.S. Open final in 2010 and 2011 only because red-hot Novak Djokovic was there to take him out 7-5 in the fifth set both times. In 2010 Djokovic needed to save match points to do it, and in 2011 it took a near miracle for Djokovic to beat him.

Federer’s results have tapered off at New York in the last two years (losses to Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals in 2012 and a head-scratching loss to Tommy Robredo in the round of 16 in 2013), but with Federer’s game kicking overdrive once again in 2014, there really isn’t any reason that he can’t easily reach the semis, and from there, depending on how the draw has broken (particularly with regard to his kryptonite, Nadal), who wouldn’t give Federer a shot to win it all?

There will certainly be challenges from the non-big four players at New York, but given Federer’s considerable experience on Arthur Ashe Stadium, and how well-suited his game is for the New York courts (even more so after his recent retool into a slightly more aggressive player under the tutelage of Stefan Edberg), one would have to consider him a favorite against all of them.

Reason No. 4: Federer is a vastly improved server, mover and striker of the ball from 2013

Just how much better Federer is serving in 2014 compared to 2013 was made remarkably clear at Wimbledon, where he was broken only once prior to the final. But it hasn’t been only Wimbledon. Federer is third on the tour in service games won in 2014, behind only John Isner and Ivo Karlovic and AHEAD of Milos Raonic. He’s also, probably due to his increased confidence with his fitness and new racquet, been better at saving break points. In 2013, Federer was 14th on the ATP Tour with 65 percent of break points saved. In 2014 Federer is 3rd on tour, saving 71 percent.

Stats don’t tell the story—they never fully will—but one needs only to dial in a few of Federer’s recent service games to note that Federer is serving better in every facet (pace, location, first serve, second serve) than he was in 2013.

As far as the movement goes, maybe Federer has Novak Djokovic to thank for motivating him in this regard? "From my point of view he hasn't been moving as well as he did before,” Djokovic told reporters in London at the ATP finals last November. "I guess that's one of the reasons why he hasn't had much success this year.”

If that was true last year, then it is also true that Federer’s rejuvenated movement is a key contributor to his success in 2014. He’s been quick—even explosive—and that newfound explosiveness has enabled him to pounce on more forehands and square up more balls from the baseline, as well as defend better.

He’ll be 33 at this year’s U.S. Open, but based on what we saw at Wimbledon this year, Federer is a very young 33. Only two different players have managed to win a Grand Slam past 33Ken Rosewall and Andres Gimeno—but with his new lease on life in 2014, it really doesn’t seem all that far-fetched that Federer could become the third.

Has Federer reached peak form in 2014? Or is there something more in the tank? It’s difficult to tell at this point—we’ll likely know more after the two Masters 1000 events in Canada and Cincinnati—but if Federer can find a way to build on rather than simply maintain his form of 2014, his “last chance” at Wimbledon could very well turn out to be the “stepping stone” to an 18th major title.

 

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