After losing in the final of Wimbledon, Roger Federer was expected by most people in the know to follow his normal routine and prepare for the U.S. Open with appearances back to back in Montreal and Cincinnati. A year ago, he was runner-up to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Canada and then was the victor in Cincinnati, playing ten tough matches in twelve or thirteen days, taxing himself considerably, heading into the U.S. Open less energetic than he wanted to be. Federer nearly lost to Gael Monfils in a quarterfinal under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium, saving two match points, surviving in five sets after dropping the first two. He then was blasted off the court by an unimaginably sublime Marin Cilic, who was in the zone.
Realizing now that he may have overdone it in 2014 on his way to New York, Federer rolled the dice in a sense this year and skipped Montreal. That put more of a premium on how he fared in Cincinnati. Having not played a match in so long, an early round defeat might have left Federer on the opposite end of the competitive spectrum this year, leaving him vulnerable at the Open because he might have been underprepared. But the 34-year-old’s decision was demonstrably a good one in the end. He cast aside five opponents to win the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati for the seventh time, defending his crown in style, stopping world No. 1 Novak Djokovic 7-6 (1), 6-3. Federer did not lose his serve in the entire tournament.
The Swiss Maestro has now captured five tournaments in a stellar 2015 campaign. It was his first Masters 1000 title of the year. Surprisingly, Federer is only 24-18 in career finals at that elite level, although his overall record in title round matches is much better: 87-45. Most importantly, Federer will take this triumph with him to New York and it should make him a more dangerous and buoyant contender. The last time Federer made it to the final of the Open was in 2009, but he will be extraordinarily determined to make amends at the upcoming event. In his first tournament since turning 34, Federer played easily his most inspired tennis of 2015 at Cincinnati, and in the process removed two members of the sport’s esteemed “Big Four” in the same tournament for the first time in three years.
Let’s start with the final. Djokovic had been gathering some steam against Federer over the course of this season. He had beaten his old rival the last three times they had met, outperforming the Swiss on hard courts in the final of Indian Wells, on clay in the final of Rome, and most recently on the lawns of the All England Club in the final there. But he met a revitalized Federer this time around. The Swiss was remarkably fresh, quick off the mark, moving more efficiently than he had all year, and backing up his serve prodigiously. His footwork—always a strong suit—was outstanding.
Federer had been at the top of his game all week, while Djokovic had never been happy with his form. He could have been out of the tournament in the round of 16, but he recouped boldly from 0-3 and two breaks down in the final set to oust David Goffin. In the penultimate round— a day before he took on Federer—the Serbian was two points away from a straight set loss to Alexandr Dolgopolov before he rescued himself again. So the first set of the final became inordinately important for Djokovic in the midday Cincinnati sun. Not only had he played four tough matches in Cincinnati, but the week before he had endured five hard matches in Canada, including a closely contested and debilitating three hour final against Andy Murray.
From the outset, Federer was utterly controlling his service games. He finished at only 57% on first serves but won 83% of his first serve points and an astounding 73% on his second serve. Djokovic never garnered a single break point in two sets, largely because Federer was so aggressive off his opponent’s returns, but partially because the Serbian was not sharp enough. Djokovic shied away from his normal quota of backhands down the line, showing too much deference to the Federer forehand, which was especially good in the first set.
Djokovic was made to feel very uncomfortable on his second serve as Federer applied pressure with the chip and charge, the run around forehand, and an assortment of blocked and rolled returns. Most impressive of all, he employed a tactic that he had experimented with all week, moving right up about a foot from the service line as if he was doing a casual half volley drill in practice, taking the ball absolutely on the rise and rushing his opponents into passing shot mistakes born of astonishment. Djokovic was not the only player to look in bewilderment at his corner as if to say, “How in the world did Federer do that?”
Djokovic started with a hold at 15 for 1-0, serving a second serve ace for 40-15. But then Federer answered by holding at 30, opening that game with an ace, closing with a pair of service winners down the T from 30-30. Djokovic found himself under siege in the third game. Federer pulled off one of his newfound half-volley returns, coming in improbably off a 106 MPH second delivery from Djokovic and drawing a passing shot error to reach 15-40. Djokovic stood his ground well with a service winner down the T and a terrific crosscourt forehand that forced Federer into a netted forehand on the run. Federer attacked off the forehand to set up an unanswerable backhand drop volley to garner a third break point, but a clutch serve from Djokovic wide to the Federer backhand got him out of that bind.
Djokovic held on stressfully for 2-1, although he put eight of ten first serves in play. That was a bad omen. Federer promptly held at love with some fine strategic serving, including an excellent second serve kicker out wide at 40-0 that was unmanageable for Djokovic. At 30-30 in the following game, Djokovic hit a reasonably good inside in forehand but left it too close to the center of the court, and Federer stepped forward to lace a sizzling forehand crosscourt winner into the clear. Shots like that one may have caused Djokovic to overthink and avoid the Federer forehand at almost all costs, but considering the circumstances that was understandable.
And so Federer was at break point for 3-2, but Djokovic erased it by getting up to the net skillfully and forcing Federer to send a lob long. On his second game point, Djokovic held on to take a 3-2 lead. Down 0-15 in the next game, Federer went to work as only he can, serving-and-volleying behind a heavy kicker to open up the court for a backhand first volley winner. He served an ace down the T for 30-15, a service winner wide to the backhand for 40-15, and a shrewd body delivery that enabled him to attack off the forehand and provoke an error. With that spree, Federer moved swiftly to 3-3. In the seventh game, with Djokovic serving at 30-30, Federer attacked behind his return, made a very good backhand volley crosscourt, but then Djokovic beat him with an even better lob. On the next point Federer snuck into the net, punched a backhand volley off the net cord, and it fell over for a winner to knot the score at deuce. But the Serbian stepped up the pace to take the next two points and hold for 4-3.
Yet Federer was suffering no lapses on serve, none whatsoever. He held at love for 4-4, serving an ace down the T for 40-0, cracking his forehand with accelerated pace all game long. Djokovic at last had an easy hold for 5-4, and briefly Federer—serving to stay in the set—seemed to feel the magnitude of the moment. He made a very fortunate backhand let-cord volley winner for 15-0, double faulted for 15-15, and then another backhand volley clipped the net cord and somehow fell on the sideline. An ace took Federer to 40-15 and he followed with a crackling forehand down the line winner. It was 5-5. Djokovic was dumbfounded. Not only was Federer performing magically, but he was getting all the good fortune as well.
Djokovic held at love for 6-5 without missing a first serve and with some solid play from the backcourt. At 5-6, Federer served another double fault for 15-15 but he collected the next three points with cool and precise authority to reach a tie-break. Federer held a narrow 11-10 edge in his career tie-break series with Djokovic, but this one wasn’t even close. A miss-hit forehand from Djokovic enabled Federer to take control of the first point. Federer went to 2-0, but a short backhand slice from Djokovic provoked an error off the forehand from Federer. The next two points essentially settled the outcome of the match.
Serving at 1-2 in the tie-break, back on serve, Djokovic thought a high trajectory topspin backhand down the line from Federer was going long, but it landed smack on the line for a winner. Now down a mini-break again at 1-3, Djokovic’s second serve slicing to the Federer forehand was excellent, but Federer stupendously went to the half-volley return again from right on top of the service line. He had no business controlling that return, but somehow kept it low and steered it down the line with a good margin for error. Djokovic was caught on his heels as Federer closed in tight on the net. The feeble passing shot from the Serbian never had a chance. It was 4-1, double mini-break to the Swiss. He never looked back, taking three points in a row to win the sequence comprehensively 7-1.
Djokovic was deflated. After Federer held at 30 for 1-0 in the second set, the top seed released three double faults in a dismal display, losing his serve at 15 for 2-0. It would be the only service break of the contest. For Djokovic, it was a devastating blow and a self-inflicted wound at the worst possible time. An enormously confident Federer held at love for 3-0. Djokovic managed to hold at love for 1-3 with consecutive aces but Federer marched to 4-1 with a hold at 30. He then went after Djokovic like a boxer looking for the knockout blow, hoping to end the fight as quickly as possible. There were six deuces in the sixth game of that second set. Federer had three break points. But Djokovic held on with a second serve ace down the T for 2-4.
In the seventh game, Djokovic got to deuce for the first and only time in the match on Federer’s serve, but was off the mark with a backhand down the line that he should have made. His chance for a break point was gone with that miscalculation. Federer put away a forehand volley on the next point to hold on for 5-2. Two games later, he served for the match, and aced Djokovic down the T for 40-0. The game’s most popular player held at love to complete a 7-6 (1), 6-3 triumph. Remember, he won 83% of his first serve points and 73% on his second delivery, and that made his first serve percentage superfluous. Djokovic won 70% on first serve but took only 47% on his second delivery. Those numbers essentially tell the story of the match.
Federer thus took the lead in his rivalry with Djokovic at 21-20 and closed the gap in their 2015 series to 3-2 for the Serbian. The feeling grows that they will meet at least three more times later in the season. But this was a significant step for Federer after losing to his primary rival three straight times. It also guarantees that Federer will be the No. 2 seed at the U.S. Open and therefore can’t meet Djokovic before the final. He moves back past Andy Murray to No. 2. Murray could have prevented that had he upended Federer in the semifinals, but the British warrior lost for the fifth time in a row to the elegant Swiss stylist, falling 6-4, 7-6 (6).
The similarity was striking when comparing Federer’s triumph over Djokovic to the one he fashioned over Murray. Murray, too, lost his serve only once in two sets, and like Djokovic he could make no impression on the Federer serve. Federer connected with only 55% of his first serves against Murray but won 77% of his first serve points and 79% on his second. Murray had no break points. Federer was also very impressive from the backcourt in that match. His forehand was virtually letter perfect in the opening set and he refused to let Murray get away with excessive passivity. The clearest reflection of Murray’s defensive posture came in the second set tie-break. Murray was up 5-4 on serve and he chose to rally safely with Federer. But that caution cost him dearly. Federer kept pounding forehands with Murray defending off his own forehand side, and finally the Swiss hit a decisive inside in forehand behind Murray to coax an error.
That denied Murray a double set point opportunity. He still saved a match point on serve at 5-6, and then was very unlucky. His serve at 6-6 to Federer’s backhand should have won him the point but the Swiss player’s return was a total shank that fell over the net, turning into an accidental drop shot. Murray chased it down but Federer lobbed over him and took away the net, putting away a half volley drop shot. Federer closed it out easily from there. Murray, of course, was worn out by two hard weeks in a row, much like Djokovic. But Federer was almost out of this world.
After defeating Djokovic in the long Montreal final, Murray had a string of tough matches in Cincinnati, including back to back rugged three setters against Grigor Dimitrov and Richard Gasquet. Dimitrov was up a set and two breaks against Murray, and served for the match at 6-5 in the second set. He led 5-2 in the third but Murray refused to surrender, saving a match point on his way to a gutsy 4-6, 7-6 (5), 7-5 win. Against Gasquet the day before he collided with Federer, Murray had another scrape before winning 4-6, 6-1, 6-4. That was no way to head into a contest with a sprightly Federer.
Djokovic, of course, was twice on the brink in Cincinnati. In the Goffin match, he won the first set but lost nine of eleven games to trail 0-3 and two breaks in the third. Infuriated by his plight, unwilling to accept defeat, reawakened, he first smashed a racket on the court and then chided himself loudly at the changeover. Then Djokovic swept 25 of 34 points and six games in a row to thwart Goffin 6-4, 2-6, 6-3. After picking apart an uninspired Stan Wawrinka 6-4, 6-1 in the quarters—this was their first meeting since Wawrinka’s stunning upset of the Serbian in the French Open final—Djokovic came out on another hot afternoon and nearly lost to the enigmatic Dolgopolov, who qualified for the tournament and beat Tomas Berdych for the first time.
Dolgopolov had almost upended Djokovic earlier in the year at Miami. In their round of 16 clash there, Djokovic averted a straight set defeat to win 6-7 (3), 7-5, 6-0. At Cincinnati last weekend, Djokovic was similarly troubled in the early stages and dropped the first set. He moved ahead 5-3 in the second but failed to serve it out. Dolgopolov is such an inventive shotmaker and spontaneous player that he often makes his adversaries uncomfortable.
In the second set tie-break, he was serving at 5-4 with a chance to close it all out. Djokovic had seemed almost ready to concede, but he made up his mind now to find a way out of the wilderness. Dolgopolov served a kicker to the Djokovic backhand and the return was reasonably deep from the Serbian. Dolgopolov unwisely went for a backhand drop shot and netted it. At 5-5, Djokovic made certain not to miss and gave Dolgopolov no openings. The top seed won a 25 stroke rally for 6-5 and connected with a forehand winner to seal the set. Thereafter, Djokovic romped as Dolgopolov faded physically, much as he had in Miami. Djokovic came through 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2, but the victory was somewhat hollow.
The loss to Federer was Djokovic’s fifth final round setback in Cincinnati, the lone Masters 1000 event he does not have in his collection. There are a number of reasons why Cincinnati has not been kind to him. It is often windy, which he dislikes. The days are scorching, and that forces him to wear a hat and makes him uncomfortable. The balls fly on him. And the courts are usually very fast. That is not a major hindrance to the Serbian, but he would prefer a slightly slower court, particularly when he is playing Federer.
As for Federer, Cincinnati is every bit to his liking. He has played the event 15 times and now owns seven titles. He has never lost a final there. He always seems to play well in that city, no matter how things have gone in any particular season. This year, it all unfolded perfectly for the Swiss. He cast aside Roberto Bautista Agut 6-4, 6-4, crushed Kevin Anderson to reach the quarters, and then easily removed Feliciano Lopez, raising his career record against the southpaw Spaniard to 12-0. Lopez had toppled Rafael Nadal in a third set tie-break and had fought hard to topple his compatriot, but against Federer he seemed resigned to defeat and fell in straight sets.
Federer came into the weekend entirely refreshed. Had he met Nadal, at the very least it would have been a hard and draining physical battle, but he was spared that assignment. The Swiss had everything he needed to take on Murray and Djokovic. His game was flowing freely. His mind was uncluttered. His body was in the best possible shape. Federer could not have asked for more. He was ineffably good. His confidence was almost tangible. Now he will return to the U.S. Open, a tournament where he ruled majestically from 2004-2008. In 2009, he lost a final to Del Potro in five sets that he should have won. Federer wasted a big opportunity when he served for a two set lead at 5-4 in the second set, advancing to 30-0 but failing to hold. He lost that set and eventually was beaten by an explosive and highly charged player.
Federer has not moved past the semifinals of the Open in his last five appearances. But he will approach the last major of the season with vigor, a larger sense of self, and a very optimistic outlook. Despite his losses in finals the last two weeks, Djokovic remains the favorite, and he is long overdue to collect a second crown in New York. Only two other men have a realistic chance of taking the title. One is Murray, who is exceedingly well prepared. And the other is clearly Federer. If he does manage to capture his first major since Wimbledon in 2012 and his first Open since 2008, Federer will look back on his decision to play only the one hard court tournament in Cincinnati on his way to New York and know that his judgment was spot on.