Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"RAISE THE ROOF...PLEASE!"

He's been written off frequently since then, but every time he does something extraordinary he reminds us of just how special he is.  Roger Federer is the greatest player of all time - the machinations required to question that, and withhold the only accolade left for him are so convoluted and illogical, there is really no sense in arguing it any further.  Djokovic and Nadal could surpass him, and for all we know, there is some kid who just picked up a racquet yesterday who could put them all to shame.  But as I write this, this conclusion is as obvious as it is irrelevant, because it could change at any time.

But it's been three years since he won a major, and his favorite tournament outside of Wimbledon and Halle, has once again bestowed upon his historically broad shoulders the status that he hasn't had since he last lifted the trophy at SW19:  the favorite to win the US Open.  The toughest tournament in tennis just got tougher for Djokovic, with the mystery malady to his arm and core that required treatment and could flare up at any time.  Nishikori looked like a world beater at the Citi Open, when he went the distance in 3 of four matches, and defeated three of the biggest serves in the history of tennis with the quickest hands in the game - but he too has succumbed to the injury bug, and is a doubt for the Flushing.  Nadal has never been seeded this low at the US Open...never.  His form is as uncertain as the reasons behind his startling demise this year, and his chances at the US Open, while they can't be discounted, cannot rise to the level of favorite based on his form since he last lifted a major trophy.  If he cannot win at Flushing in 2015, it will break a streak of 10 straight years lifting a major, and the first since 2009 that one of those didn't include Roland Garros.

There are floaters who could be problematic for Federer:  despite defeating Andy Murray rather dismissively in the semi-final on his way to the title in Ohio, Federer has never been a sure thing against his Scottish rival.  While he's gotten the better of him the last 3 times they've played, he won't have it all his own way if Murray's game can rise to the occasion the way it has when we least expected it.  Interestingly, one of the defeats that Murray has suffered at the hands of his Swiss nemesis, was a humiliating capitulation at the World Tour Finals last year in London.  There, Federer all but admitted he had taken pity on him and given him a game, which actually strikes me as worse than completing the emasculation, and Murray himself was left to apologize for his performance, such was the weight of the defeat.  But interestingly this defeat, indoors at the O2, may give Murray his biggest worry if he is to face Federer this year under the new roof at Arthur Ashe. 

To begin with, Federer may still be the best indoor player in the world.  His last major was won with 4 of his 7 matches completed under the roof.  Against Benneteau, Federer was down 2 sets to love before the roof was pulled over the court, and suddenly he found his way past the Frenchman who somehow, by some osmosis, took on the physical deficiencies that led to Federer imminent demise in the first place.  Against Xavier Malisse, a player  whom Nick Bolletieri once proclaimed to be one of the three most naturally talented players he'd ever encountered, Federer overturned a 2 sets to 1 lead to win in 5.  Against Djokovic, the speed of play and resulting discombobulation put the result outside his reach almost from the outset.  That match was played in its entirety under the roof, and the sure bounce and thin air through which Federer's serve found its mark repeatedly, facilitated the kind of cut and run, death by a thousands small cuts approach that Sugar Ray Roger generally requires to defeat his more powerful opponents.

In the final, under the beautiful sun of a beautiful 2:00pm start, Murray looked like he was going to blow Federer off the court, let alone win his maiden Wimbledon title.  There, Federer frustratingly inched his way back into the second set, so when the roof emerged for the third set, the echo from the strike of his ball announced a change not only in conditions, but in momentum that he rode to his 17th major title.  And it is these conditions, in which we might easily find ourselves at Arthur Ashe (where Federer is almost certain to play all of his matches), that give the old man who's given himself a few years yet, the best opportunity to reach 18 and put a little more distance between himself and those who would gape to be his heir in the GOAT debate.

The word from Patrick McEnroe, which Federer picked up on gleefully as he basked in the glory of his victory lap in Cincinnati, is that just the structure of the roof, even without the roof itself, has the added effect of making conditions more sedentary, more consistent, removing the toilet bowl effect of the vortex that frequently plagues the most important matches.  The 2012 final was a battle of the elements, where Djokovic appeared to be by far the stronger player, but was confounded by the uncertain flight of the ball, mitigating the attacking elements of his game.  Murray, on the other hand, whose natural instinct is to defend, and has to be forced to be more aggressive, gladly played the percentages for 2 sets until conditions settled sufficiently for the Djoker to threaten yet another 2 sets to love come back.  In the end, Murray's staying power won the day and his first major, and laid the ground work for what had been his real target all along - Wimbledon 2013.

I am of the opinion that roofs at majors are not a good thing - one of the things that make the majors what they are is the consistency of conditions - including the elements.  Rain and wind have no idea what year it is, and if it was good enough for Jimmy Connors, and Rod Laver and Pancho Gonzales and Bill Tilden, it should be good enough for the modern supplicants to their thrones in tennis heaven.  But the US Open could ill afford to fall behind all three majors in this regard, not to mention the atrocious run of luck that saw so many men's finals pushed to Monday over the last 10 years, so the structure of the roof will make its appearance for the first time in 2015, with the roof itself to follow possibly next year.

So whether it's opened or closed, I think this more than any other condition gives Federer that one fleeting shot at glory that has escaped him for 3 years, and in all likelihood would be the last time he lifts the Swiss Flag on major soil in his storied career.
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