Roger Federer showed up to the Montreal final Sunday in the stuff he’d been winning in all week: stubble of a sleepless new dad (he is an old dad), toasted tan, shirt the color of a very clean piglet. He also showed up with a 35-2 record. Federer has alternated between two modes this season: rest or kill. In 2017 he had entered seven tournaments and won five of those titles. In the other two he crashed early to a player ranked outside the top 100, and had match points in both, making them easy enough to dismiss as flukes. To repeat: he had made it to mid-August without playing a match in which he did not have a match point. Along the way he won two majors and two Masters and had yet to lose to a player on his tier.
His season has consisted almost entirely of title wins and long rehabilitative rest periods, a rich blend, one any player would kill for, but seemingly impossible to sustain. Especially under the pressures he was facing. Not from within his over-30, nursing home set—Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic have taken off for the rest of the season with injuries, Andy Murray’s health has been iffy, and Rafael Nadal hadn’t beaten him in three tries. Not even from the Lost Generation behind them, the hapless late twenty-somethings whose title hopes he’s stifled for years. But from behind even them: Alexander Zverev, the 20-year-old who would not have been standing in the final if he had shanked one ball in that marathon 49-shot rally on Thursday, making the contingency of sport all the keener. If Zverev lost it’s hard to imagine that anyone else left in the draw would have given Federer fits, but he did not lose, and did not lose a single match after to claim his second-straight title.
Zverev, who is not so much the future as he is the present, came to Montreal hot off a title win in Washington, and was plying the clean, penetrating groundstrokes that make him so hard to outhit from the baseline. Federer tried the aggression needed to jar Zverev out of his rhythm, rushing the net regularly, but absent was the typical pristine timing needed to execute it. In this match he was also slicing his backhand a lot more than he had on the hard courts earlier this year—perhaps to force his 6-foot-6 opponent to stoop low—but these balls were too floaty to be challenging, and he lost plenty of neutral rallies. Zverev broke early in the match and took the first set with relative ease, and Federer recovered and held steady in the second, finding (and blowing) some good break opportunities, until he tweaked something during the 2-3 game of the second set.
The rest of the match was a formality. Federer’s serve degenerated into a stiff, clobbering motion, with no rotation through his back (1:39 in the above video), and no pace either. From the baseline he was clipping balls off the frame of his racket, sending them sailing into the clouds or, on match point, straight down into the court. Federer has never retired from a match in his career, and was clearly just hoping to ride this one out on principle, pick up the runner-up trophy, and then figure out if he was healthy enough to play this week. About an hour ago he made his decision: nope, back injury. He withdrew from Cincinnati, a tournament he has won seven times, in order to recover from whatever went wrong yesterday.
With the year’s final Slam just two weeks away, he’ll want to take all the time he can to get himself right. It would be a little overzealous to point to Zverev as the U.S. Open favorite—still unknown if his spidery frame can hold up to best-of-five grind, as he has yet to crack the quarterfinal, losing to Nadal (Australian) and Milos Raonic (Wimbledon) in tough five-setters this year. But, with his five title wins this year, he might as well be. Nadal is still around, and is about to reclaim the No. 1 ranking for the first time in over three years. But many of the older threats are busy patching themselves up. After a near-perfect season the GOAT is finally showing signs of mortality again. With the Big Five in disrepair, this could be Zverev’s window to snag a major and kickstart what looks like a very, very lengthy reign at the top of the game.