Winsome at 34

Forget the numbers. Sure, he’s 34, and won an 87th career singles title. Sure, he won his 24th Masters 1000 title, and went ahead 21-20 in the head-to-head against World No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Sure, he defeated Andy Murray and Djokovic – both five years his junior – on consecutive days to win his 7th Cincinnati title. And sure, he denied Djokovic a clean sweep of all 9 Masters events yet again, making the Serb lose his 5th final in Cincinnati. And sure, he snatched back the no. 2 ranking from Murray just before the US Open.
But forget those numbers.

 

The way Roger Federer played his first tournament after Wimbledon, it’s clear that he is confident of winning yet another major tournament. It’s also clear that he loves the American hard courts, and the courts love him back. Cincinnati is probably the only place where Federer can play as Federer was born to play. He doesn’t have to adapt to the pace of the courts; they’re built to suit his aggressive, relentlessly attacking game. It’s quicker than any grass surface he has played on, and allows him to chase down shots and time the ball sweetly enough to get his winners. More importantly, it lets him come to the net even more often than he already does. Add his impenetrable serve (once again) to all this and it’s almost impossible to defeat him over 3 sets – or even break his serve.

For only the second time in ATP Masters’ history, a player has won it without losing serve. The first time was when a certain Mr. Federer won the same title back in 2012. He has done it twice now, and what’s more remarkable is that his game is only getting faster and more aggressive as we speak.

It’s probably his age. He is conscious of the fact that he has to play lesser and optimize his shots, and get maximum results with minimum input. This means he will not play at anybody else’s pace. He will make his own pace, and go down in a blaze of fast volleys if needed.

This explains why he literally concocted a new style of play during this tournament. Everyone’s seen the chip-and-charge, but nobody’s seen a returner stepping well into the baseline, almost reaching the deuce court to attack second serves. Federer did it consistently through the tournament – with Feliciano Lopez, Murray and even Djokovic. He unsettled them with his movements, pouncing on their second serves earlier than anticipated, and making them appear weaker than they are. Serving and volleying is one thing, but almost volleying on the opponent’s second serve is quite something else. He had his own accurate bullet serve to back his ‘experiment’ up, and he barely faced a break point throughout the week. There aren’t many serve and volley-ers left, and Federer is as close to one in the modern game. He has adapted to age beautifully, and is refusing to fade away. If he gets into a rally, he almost always loses it – he doesn’t want to indulge the other player. The withered center court at Wimbledon didn’t allow him to shorten the points, which made him go down to Djokovic – who was enjoying creating long rallies and just getting the ball into play. Federer isn’t satisfied anymore with simply chipping the ball back into play as a return – as he has done so for a majority of his long career – he has now discovered that he can do much more with his backhand on a return. And he needs to. He can’t depend solely on his forehand to win him tournaments anymore. He needs to mix it up, and with the help of Stefan Edberg, he seems to have come up with yet another winning formula.

If this will help him win another major, only time will tell. He hasn’t won the US Open since 2009. He has only won two majors this decade – the first tournament of the decade (Australia 2010) and Wimbledon in 2012. He wants more, and he finally feels that he deserves more.

He will head into New York with Djokovic on the other side of the draw. It’s an advantage he has earned.

 

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