Let’s revisit the one part of yesterday’s Roger Federer match that made me happy. Lob falling back to earth, a few feet from the baseline—let it bounce, right? No rush.
Nope. Because Federer is always in a rush, it’s got to be a swinging volley, jarring, arrhythmic, and devastating. It is very difficult to take a ball out of the air like that—when it’s descending in almost vertical free fall—and almost no one would bother to do it, but he makes it look as if it’s the obvious choice. That point was nice.
Otherwise, this second-round U.S. Open match was the emotional and aesthetic equivalent of passing through a trash compactor.
After Wimbledon, a Federer fan should have felt plenty contented. When Frances Tiafoe took him to a fifth set on Monday, I felt newly liberated—yes! I don’t actually mind if the old guy loses! This kid is a brick of charisma and adrenaline; he has tricked America into thinking there’s hope for men’s tennis after this lengthy drought; let him do this thing. Even the Arthur Ashe crowd, which has steadily swooned over the Swiss for over a decade, seemed torn for once. But then Federer won and advanced.
Unsurprisingly, they found it hard to muster the same warmth for his next opponent, 35-year-old journeyman Mikhail Youzhny, and when their man went down two sets to one, the uneasy murmurs seemed to be saying: If you’re going to lose at this tournament, please don’t let it be like this. And as this weird upset brewed, I, like so many other spectators, found myself once again trapped in an all-too familiar anxiety. It didn’t help that the tennis was tough to watch: error-strewn, bearing the clear markers of injury on both sides. Youzhny’s serve began to sail in at a leisurely 86 mph. Federer would break serve and then cede his own service game right back. As the two men trekked around the court in what I saw dubbed the “Euthanasia Cup,” everyone involved just wanted it to be over.
And eventually it was, not a second or shanked backhand too soon, 6-1, 6-7(3), 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. Federer has been taken to the brink in both of his matches, by a teen with almost no wins over elite players, and by a guy he had had beaten all 16(!) previous meetings. He has now played 10 sets at the U.S. Open. By the time he had played that many sets at Wimbledon, he had one foot in the quarterfinals. If he wins this with a lame back, it would be his most unlikely and in some ways most impressive major title of this ridiculous season. And for all his devotees, there will be lots of hair (and many years of life expectancy) lost along the way.