For 4 matches and 3 sets, Gael Monfils played flawless tennis. He of the fragile psyche and street-football-style tennis rose splendidly in US Open 2014 to reach the quarterfinal without dropping a set. That he managed to steamroll ‘Baby Fed’ Dimitrov—who possesses a similar fluent elegance as idol Federer—was an ominous signs of things to come for Federer fans on a balmy Thursday night.
It ended as one of the epics the US Open is famous for, amongst the Slams. Many will remember Monfils finally resembling Monfils in the fifth set after a spirited and relentless fight for four sets, but even more will remember—literally, the viewership topped the first day of NFL—a 33 year old Champion, far from being done, carving his way back into the echelons of top-flight tennis. 2014 has been a stellar year for Roger Federer. There’s no doubting his technique, fitness and game anymore, but it is a mental chip that he had added to his superfast processing hi-tech tennis brain that has taken him to his third Slam semifinal of the year. He has been the best player on the North American hardcourts post-Wimbledon, but even he mustn’t have expected Monfils to turn up with an A-game that lasted more than a set. After being barnstormed by a marauding Tsonga in the final at Toronto less than a month back—on visibly faster courts—Monfils, the other mercurial and theatrically unpredictable Frenchman, outplayed and outbaselined Federer for more than two sets. In no time, he was up two sets, and he played at a high level in the third. Federer chose his moment, won the third against the run of play, and went up an early break in the fourth. The comeback was well and truly on, his first down-two-sets comeback since beating Benetteau (French, again) in Wimbledon 2012. He went on to win that tournament—his last Slam victory—which could be a sign of things to come here. This was his first stern test of the tournament, and only a few mistakes had cost him the first two sets. The margin for error was minimal, but with Federer, you always know you’re going to get that one out-of-focus ordinary service game a set, especially under pressure and going for broke. Federer got broken back by La Monf, who was now pumped enough to know that he had the momentum again, even though the crowd had clearly singled out their eternal favorite. At 5-4, with Federer serving to stay in it after a couple of easy love service games, this was it. He made a couple of silly forehand errors to immediately go 15-40 down, and was suddenly telling himself, “Man, this is the last point. Go down fighting.” And he did. Only he didn’t go down. A long forehand by Monfils, no doubt forced by a charging-to-the-net Federer, followed by an audacious forehand winner down the line had them back at deuce. Federer went on to take the game, and then fight to deuce in the next on Monfils’ serve. Finally, Monfils became Monfils. Two double faults appeared out of nowhere to give the Swiss legend the set and arguably, the match. There was no fight left in the Frenchman after that. 6-2 in the fifth was a mere formality for Federer, who began to swing freely and vent gradually with every new shot. The New York crowd had seen a match worthy of being a final by the end of it, and they were thankful that their hero had lived to fight another day. So many days like this have come in 2014, and one hopes that he ceases the moment finally, after a heartbreaking Wimbledon loss in July. It is only a matter of time. And this is Federer’s best chance after a listless 2013. He is aggressive, fit, hungry and mentally tougher than ever. Cilic in the semifinal will be wary of Fed 3.3, but Djokovic will be unfazed. He will no doubt be waiting in the final, bar a miracle, and looking to carry his three-pronged rivalry even further to win his 8th Slam. Will it be 8 or 18? The answer will arrive, not in straight sets for sure, this Sunday.