Federer serves up powerful statement of intent
He has reached three Grand Slam finals and one semi-final, won an Olympic gold medal and has still to defend his Tennis Masters Cup title. In anyone else's books it would be a hugely successful year. But this is Roger Federer.
It might seem that Federer reaches the last four of Grand Slam tournaments as routinely as New Yorkers reach for their breakfast bagel, but the 27-year-old Swiss never takes anything for granted. Here at the US Open he played his 18th Grand Slam semi-final in succession, yet you could see from his reaction at the end of a 6-3, 5-7, 7-5, 6-2 triumph over Novak Djokovic how much this victory meant to him. Federer greets most of his wins with little more than a smile, a handshake and a wave to the crowd, but on Saturday he roared in celebration and skipped to the net in delight.
For all his achievements Federer knows that this has been a moderate year by his standards. He has lost his Wimbledon and Australian Open titles and his world No 1 ranking, while his doubles gold medal in Beijing was compensation for his defeat in the quarter-finals of the singles by James Blake, who had taken one set off him in their previous eight meetings.
Does he now feel the need to prove himself again in today's final at Flushing Meadows, where he has won 33 matches in succession and is one victory away from becoming the first man for 84 years to win the title five times in a row?
"No, the pressure is off," Federer said as he reflected on his victory over Djokovic, who would have replaced him as world No 2 if he had won the title. "Now I can look forward and just try to win. The pressure is always in the early rounds, when you have to come through and not get an upset. I had a couple of tough opponents early on here.
"Once you get to the semis you can maybe play a little bit more freely again. You're playing opponents you know have a better chance of beating you, but you also know them better, so it's easier to play against them."
Asked to assess his year, Federer replied: "Let's wait another day and then I'll answer that question." His questioner persisted, asking how his year would be if he won today's final. "Give me 35 hours and then we'll sit down with something to drink and I'll tell you everything," Federer said with a smile.
The defending champion's form has fluctuated over the last fortnight. He looked well below his best in beating Thiago Alves and Gilles Muller, qualifiers ranked No 137 and 130 in the world respectively, and took more than three-and-a-half hours and five sets to subdue Igor Andreev, a limited clay-courter.
Before Saturday he had yet to meet a top-20 player here, but any thoughts that Djokovic might reverse their result of 12 months ago, when Federer beat the Serb in the final, were rapidly dispelled. He took the first set in just 24 minutes, dropping only four points on his serve. Despite losing the second after playing a loose service game at 5-5, the Swiss always looked in control.
"I think the way I played the first set was the key," Federer said. "I had a feeling he was looking a little weary and I think I broke his will when I got the third set. I think he let his head hang a little bit."
Federer does not crack the ball with the power of a Roddick or a Karlovic, but nobody serves with better disguise and variation. Djokovic repeatedly failed to pick up his serves, especially down the middle of the court. Federer won 76 per cent of his points on first serve, hit 20 aces and made only one double fault.
"It's important to have variation and to be able to hit all four corners on the court," Federer said. "That's what great servers do. I actually think I've served very well throughout the tournament. Of course Novak is a different calibre of player on the return of serve, so I always expect more balls to come back from him, especially when I saw how easily he returned against Andy Roddick.
"I expected him to return even more easily against me because I don't have the power that Andy has, but maybe I used a little bit more variety. I can hide my serve better, so it's harder for him to read. And then that doesn't give him confidence from the baseline."
Did Federer feel like his old self again? "Sure. I had moments out there where I really felt, 'this is how I normally play on hard courts'. I was hitting half-volleys, passing shots, serving well, putting the pressure on, playing with the wind and using it to my advantage. All those things. I definitely had moments today when I thought, 'this is how I would like to play every time'. It was very nice to get that feeling back."
For Djokovic it was a reminder that he still has a little way to go before he can dislodge Federer and Rafael Nadal from their perches. In the three Grand Slam events since he won the Australian Open Djokovic has been knocked out in the semi-finals here and at Roland Garros and in the second round at Wimbledon. He has not won a title since Rome in early May and his stamina has again looked suspect over the last fortnight.
"It's been a very exhausting tournament for me both mentally and physically, so I'm happy that I got to the semis," Djokovic said. "Today I knew that I really had to be 100 per cent fit against an opponent who's won five times here."
The crowd were firmly on the side of Federer, who would have had their support even without the animosity Djokovic provoked with his barbed comments about Roddick, the local favourite, after their quarter-final 48 hours earlier. "I appreciate the effort from the fans, supporting me and pushing me forward," Federer said. "I don't count on it because I'm not American, but I feel a little bit of a New Yorker right now."
Federer's Grand Slam record
*Titles 12 (two behind Pete Sampras' record): Australian Open 2004, 2006 and 2007; Wimbledon 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007;
US Open 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007
*Finals 17 (two behind Ivan Lendl's record)
*Consecutive appearances in semi-finals 18 (eight ahead of Lendl and Rod Laver, who have the second best record)
*Match victories 160 (eighth on all-time list)
*Last defeat other than in a semi-final or final 2004 French Open (lost to Gustavo Kuerten in third round)