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Federer's Pleasure & Pain In New York

DEUCE US Open 2012

Federer© Getty ImagesRoger Federer has won the US Open title five times.

The US Open has been both extraordinarily kind and agonisingly cruel to Roger Federer. JOEL DRUCKER examines the 10 matches that have defined the Swiss master's eventful career at Flushing Meadows.

The US Open’s swirling blend of commerce and commotion make it arguably more disruptive than any of tennis’ majors. But winning has a way of calming all wounds, so by the time Federer earned the first of five straight US Open titles in 2004, New York’s noisy nuances had become mere background music. In the ensuing years there have been many highs along with some heartbreaking defeats...

No. 10: Daunting Debut
2000 first round: Federer d. Peter Wessels, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, 3-4

On the eve of his US Open debut, Roger Federer was ranked 40 in the world – not bad for a 19 year old. But he’d also lost in the first round of six straight ATP World Tour events. Taking on 89th-ranked Dutchman Peter Wessels in the first round of the 2000 US Open, Federer promptly lost the first two sets, rallied to level the match – and was then the benefactor of fortune. In the eighth game of the fifth set, Wessels retired with a sprained ankle. Federer would lose in the third round to Juan Carlos Ferrero. But Hall of Famer Pancho Segura, former coach of Jimmy Connors, would issue a prophetic comment as he witnessed that defeat: "This kid Federer could well have a Pete Sampras-like career."

"This kid Federer could well have a Pete Sampras-like career"

No. 9: If I Can Make it Here, I’ll Make it Anywhere
2004 quarter-finals: Federer d. Andre Agassi, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5, 3-6, 6-3

It began on a Wednesday night, the New York crowd cheering passionately for the 34-year-old American icon. After all, who was Federer at this point but a stylish European who’d yet to bite the Big Apple? The two split the first two sets. But one game after Federer had barely squeaked out the third, rain forced a postponement. The next day was extraordinarily disruptive, winds in excess of 25 miles per hour knocking over chairs and courtside umbrella stands. "Hitting the ball in the centre was a great shot," said Agassi. Locked into battle, forced to constantly adjust his feet and shot selection choices, Federer dropped the fourth, but found just enough to win the fifth. "You would touch the ball, and the ball would fly a long, long way," said Federer. "So in the end, it was more just trying to wait for the opponent's mistake." Liberated in the wake of such blustery anguish, Federer won his next two matches without the loss of a set – and so began his New York reign.

Federer, WoodsNo. 8: Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright
2006 final: Federer d. Andy Roddick 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1

Sitting in Federer’s box was new friend Tiger Woods. "He promised to come if I’m in the finals," said Roger, "and so I had some pressure." Additional pressure came from his opponent, 2003 US Open champion Andy Roddick. A big factor in Roddick’s resurgence was his own tiger: new coach Jimmy Connors, who’d often worn a necklace with the word 'Tig' on it. At one set apiece, with Roddick serving at 5-6, Federer broke it open, winning seven of the next eight games. Federer out-aced Roddick 17 to 7, struck twice as many winners – 69 to 33 – and made only 19 unforced errors. Federer had been delighted to please his special guest. "That’s something I haven’t felt before," he said, "a guy who knows how it feels to be invincible at times."

No. 7: Newcomer At The Dance
2009 final: Juan Martin del Potro d. Federer, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2

Federer sought a record sixth straight US Open title – and his first Slam since the July birth of his twin daughters. Carving up Slam final newcomer Juan Martin del Potro, in the second set Federer served at 5-4, 30-love – two points away from a near-impregnable two sets to love lead. But then, at 30-all, del Potro won a challenge and soon leveled the match. The fifth was nearly a formality, del Potro running away with it, 6-2. Said del Potro, the only the only man to date to have intruded on the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic Slam domination over the past 30 majors, “To win in five against Federer makes it even more special.”

"Seeing them challenge me, beating them in the final, it’s really for me the best feeling"

No. 6: If You Strike A King, You Must Kill Him
2007 final: Federer d. Novak Djokovic 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2), 6-4

Twenty-year-old Novak Djokovic was the belle of the ball; his powerful groundstrokes and humorous impressions charming the world. Federer of course was intent on ringing the midnight bell on New York’s Cinderella – and also becoming the first man since Bill Tilden in the 1920s to win four straight US men’s singles titles. Djokovic struck boldly. In the first set the Serb served at 6-5, 40-love. But Federer rallied, fighting off a total of five set points in that opening stanza. Djokovic also held two set points in the second, but again Federer emerged the victor – and in time, Roger took the third, 6-4. Said Federer about how he’d repelled a young upstart, "Seeing them challenge me, beating them in the final, it’s really for me the best feeling."

No. 5: Eyes Wide Shut
2010 semi-final: Novak Djokovic d. Federer, 5-7, 6-2, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5

For the fourth straight year at the US Open, Federer took on Novak Djokovic. The energy was electric, each player striking powerful groundstrokes into every corner of the court. Federer, hungry to reach the final again following his 2009 loss to del Potro, won a tight first set, 7-5. But Djokovic’s rapid 6-1 second set win gave an indication of strong resistance. Back and forth it went, till in the fifth Federer held two match points on Djokovic’s serve. Djokovic fought them both off boldly – a forehand drive volley winner on the first, a topspin laser of a forehand on the second. Said Djokovic, "I was just closing my eyes and hitting forehands as fast as I can on the match points." Finally, after three hours and 44 minutes of body blows, Federer netted a forehand and Djokovic had emerged the winner. Said Federer, "It’s a tough loss for me but it’s only going to fuel me with more motivation to practise hard and get back to Grand Slam finals."

No. 4: Taking the Fifth
2008 fourth round: Federer d. Igor Andreev, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 6-3

Federer

For the first time since 2002, Federer arrived in New York without having won a Grand Slam singles title all year. In the fourth round he came up against Igor Andreev. It didn’t matter that prior to 2008 Andreev had only won two matches at the US Open. It didn’t matter that Andreev was ranked 23rd in the world. It didn’t matter that Federer had won their only previous match. What mattered was that on this day Andreev – streaky, with a massive forehand – had snapped up the first set and the second was deadlocked at 6-6. Even after Federer levelled the match and took the third, Andreev would not go away, sending it into a fifth before Federer at last closed it out after three-and-a-half hours. Saving 13 of 15 break points, coming to net 84 times, Federer was elated. "I expected a tough one," he said. "You always get ready for five-setters… and the pressure is huge on me, because Igor doesn’t have a whole lot to lose." Three more victories brought Federer his fifth straight US Open title.

No. 3: Roger’s Reign Begins
2004 final: Federer d. Lleyton Hewitt, 6-0, 7-6 (3), 6-0

It was Federer’s first US Open final. Across the net stood Lleyton Hewitt, a gritty past champion who at that point had beaten Federer seven out of 12 times. What to expect? Answer: utter dominance. In 18 amazing minutes, Federer dropped just five points and won the first set 6-0. With trademark tenacity, Hewitt stiffened, but Federer squeaked out the second in a tie-break – and once again poured it on, inflicting another bagel on the Aussie in the third. Barely a year after he’d earned his first major, Federer was already making big history, becoming only the fourth man in the Open era to win three majors in a calendar year. Longstanding tennis legend Jack Kramer watched the action from the USTA President’s box in awe. Said Kramer, "He’s good on defence and so good at the return of serve that he’s forcing the other player mentally to get a little of scaredness.” Though he’d rapidly won his first four Slam finals, Federer repelled any talk of an epic tally. Asked if he could rival Sampras’ record of 14 major victories, the 23-year-old Swiss said, "It’s not a goal for me to beat his record. For me, this is not motivation. This would just kill me."

"He plays the game in a very special way that I haven't seen before"

No. 2: Sequel from Hell
2011 semi-final: Novak Djokovic d. Federer, 6-7 (7), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5

For the most part, the concept of history repeating itself has been pleasing for Federer fans. But Federer’s 2011 US Open semi versus Novak Djokovic was a sequel of another colour. Once again, Federer won the first set. But this time he also won the second, surely a sign he’d be on the way to his seventh US Open final. Not quite. Djokovic handily took the next two sets. At 3-4 in the fifth, Federer broke and soon reached match point at 5-3, 40-15. Alas, his wide serve into the deuce court was what baseball players would call a hanging curve, a 108 mph delivery not quite short or deep enough. Credit Djokovic, though, who saw an opening and crushed a forehand crosscourt winner John McEnroe called, "one of the all-time great shots." On the next point, a Federer forehand clipped the net and went out. Djokovic went on to win 15 of the next 19 points, beating Federer from double match point down in the semis for the second year in a row. Federer had been denied a Grand Slam singles title in a year for the first time since 2002. Said Roger, "Sometimes in sports it just goes the other way. Maybe you've already won so much that it evens it out a bit sometimes. I don't know."

Federer, AgassiNo. 1: Rinse & Repeat
2005 final: Federer d. Andre Agassi, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-1

To take one US Open title? Yes. To take another? Altogether different. So it was that Federer’s quest to repeat at the US Open required vaulting a considerable hurdle: Andre Agassi, making one last go. At the age of 35, playing his 20th straight Open, Agassi had New York in his hands – and even more, wielded his racquet with all the power and flair that had earned him eight major titles, including two US Opens. With the match levelled at a set apiece, Agassi led 4-2, 30-love, a storybook close to his career tantalisingly close. Suddenly, Federer snapped the door shut, breaking back. In the third set tie-break, Federer lost the first point, and then ripped through it – seven straight to take a commanding lead. In the fourth, he again seized the day, dropping just one game. Said Agassi, "He’s the best I’ve ever played against. He plays the game in a very special way that I haven't seen before." Federer was well aware of what the occasion had meant. "This is probably the most special Grand Slam final in my career," he said. "To play against Andre in New York, it’s a dream."

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