Roger Federer’s career right now, much like the flag of his home country, is a huge positive. He may not be the messiah, but he is greatness personified. Exactly 10 years since his last US Open title, Federer enters Flushing Meadows as World No 2, after a six-month break in 2016 sidelined his otherwise stellar run in the sport.
To borrow a Pearl Jam lyric as a metaphor for his career, he’s “still alive,” and how.
The Swiss ace has won a staggering three Grand Slams in the past two years — two Australian Open titles and one at his stomping grounds of Wimbledon. Those Grand Slam wins have come 15 years after his first ever Majors win, at Wimbledon in 2003, and twenty years after his tennis debut in 1998.
Nor has the Swiss displayed any particular weakness against any player. Every single one of his wins at the US Open has come against a unique player — Lleyton Hewitt in 2004, Andre Agassi in 2005, Andy Roddick in 2006, Novak Djokovic in 2007, and Andy Murray in 2008. One cannot really establish a trend among those rivals other than to say they are immensely talented (and that there are two Andys), all with vastly different playing styles and techniques. Each of them offered a unique challenge to the Swiss champion, and each of them were defeated by him at Flushing Meadows.
At 37 years of age and having mounted a thundering return to the top in 2017, Federer this year has been sparing with his tournaments, but successful nonetheless. In addition to his Australian Open win in January this year, Federer won the ATP 500 Rotterdam title, made the finals at the Indian Wells Masters, won the title in Stuttgart, made the finals at the ATP 500 tournament in Halle, and most recently made the finals at the Cincinnati Masters. Enjoying quite the success on tour, Federer has shown no signs of waning — his moon is quite full, it might seem. His career, much like the flag of his home country, is a big positive right now.
Let’s take a look at the numbers behind the Swiss ace, and why they show that he could come up on top yet again:
Federer at the US Open
Roger Federer has not won the US Open since 2008, when he ended his five-year streak of wins at Flushing Meadows. Since 2008, the Swiss ace has been in two finals: in 2009, when he lost to Juan Martín Del Potro, and again in 2015, when he lost to Novak Djokovic.
How has he finished between 2009 and 2017? Here’s a look:
2009: Fresh off a streak of five championship titles here and looking at number 6, World No 1 and top seed Roger Federer plays as if nobody could unseat him. In comes the Tower of Tandil, the Gentle Giant, Juan Martin del Potro. But the Swiss was on a 41-match winning streak at Flushing Meadows until that fateful Delpo match. While Federer was on a mission to break one record by Bill Tilden and another by Rod Laver, Del Potro had something to prove. Seeded sixth, the Argentine made very short work of Rafael Nadal while on the other end of the draw, old Federer foe Robin Soderling troubled him just that little bit too much. The semi-finals saw Federer square off against someone who would become a frequent US Open rival: Novak Djokovic.
In the finals, after a gruelling five-set battle, Del Potro emerged victorious in a mammoth battle, with the final scoreline 3–6, 7–6(7–5), 4–6, 7–6(7–4), 6–2, showing just how hard the Argentine – and Federer – fought to finish on top.
2010: Federer is second seed and truly unimpeded until the semi-finals. Not a set dropped, and with every indication that he was in it to win it. Then comes Novak Djokovic to well and truly put a spanner in the works and after a five-setter, it is the Serbian who came out on top — only to lose the finals.
2011: Yet again, Federer has a great run through to the QFs, dropping not even one set. Yet again, it is a certain tall Serbian who makes life difficult. And yet again, it goes to five sets against the Serbian in the semi-finals, and again, it’s Djokovic who comes out on top. This time, Djokovic wins.
2012: Cracks in Federer’s game – mostly injury issues, had been beginning to surface. One cannot expect a great – let alone a GOAT, to fire and he went down fighting to eventual semi-finalist Tomas Berdych in the QFs this year.
2013: This is perhaps the exception to Federer’s rule. Here, beginning to struggle publicly with injury – something completely out of the norm for the Swiss, he lost to Spaniard Tommy Robredo in the fourth round – his earliest exit at any US Open he participated at in the previous 9 years.
2014: This year saw perhaps the most unique US Open final in a long time in terms of its finalists alone. Federer pushed through for a gruelling quarter-final against the mercurial Frenchman Gael Monfils, only to tumble to the eventual US Open winner Marin Cilic in the semi-final in straight sets. Cilic would go on to win the title over Kei Nishikori.
2015: This was Federer’s most recent final. The Swiss ace did not drop a single set en route to the final, looking to be in prime position – but eventually lost to Novak Djokovic in four.
2016: This was a trend-bucker for the US Open entirely, marking the first time in 17 years that Roger Federer did not participate in the Slam.
2017: The year saw the beginning of the resurgence of Roger Federer (but did he ever really leave?), and the Swiss ace again tumbled to his old rival and former US Open winner Juan Martin Del Potro.
An interesting trend emerges from this. With the exception of 2012 and 2013, anyone Federer lost to at the US Open has gone on to either make the finals or win the title at some point in their careers.
Novak Djokovic: The biggest rival at the US Open, yet again
It is not just conjecture: Novak Djokovic is, unequivocally, Federer’s biggest US Open rival. The two have faced off in two finals – in 2007 and 2015, with each player winning one of those titles, but they have locked horns several times earlier in the draw.
The two have met consistently for five US Opens, back to back in either the semi-finals or finals — beginning with 2007, which would go on to be Federer’s fourth of five US Open wins so far. 2008 saw the two lock horns in the semifinal, Federer winning in four and going on to win his fifth and most recent US Open title.
2009, again, saw the two face off in the semi-finals, with Federer winning in straight sets but losing the final to Del Potro. The next year, in 2010, Djokovic got his own, beating Federer, but in a very difficult five-setter; Djokovic would not win the title that year. Keeping their tradition alive, they faced off again in 2011, yet again clashing in the semi-finals and yet again, the Serbian came out on top in a hard-fought five-set battle. This time, Djokovic did win the title, beating his finals rival from the previous year – Rafael Nadal.
Although the pair did not clash for three years between 2012 and 2014, 2015 — Federer’s most recent US Open final — saw the two take each other on yet again, with the Swiss losing in a tough 5 setter this time.
Even on the occasions that Djokovic has, in fact, taken finals victories, none of the Serbian’s wins have come cheaply – but Federer has taken straight sets wins, pointing the stats firmly in his favour on this one.
Losing Cincinnati is not a big deal and it may even be a good thing
Federer has only played one hard-court tournament between Wimbledon and the US Open this year: the Cincinnati Masters, a tournament he has won six times before. This time around, the Legend of Tennis dropped only a single set en route to the finals at Cincinnati. He may have been up against a lower-ranked foe, but quite the big name: a certain man named Novak Djokovic.
Interestingly, Djokovic, prior to 2018, had made five finals at Cincinnati – winning none of them. In two of those five battles – in 2012 and again in 2015 – the Serbian ace was beaten by Roger Federer himself.
Djokovic, meanwhile, dropped nary a set in the tournament, and despite his struggles in the past few years, has magnified the scale of his comeback immensely.
But here’s an interesting statistic: the winner of Cincinnati rarely, if ever, goes on to win the US Open, despite it being the last ATP tournament before the US Open. In the past two decades, only on five occasions has the player who won Cincy gone on to win the US Open. 1998 saw Aussie former top-ranked Patrick Rafter take top honours at Cincinnati and then the US Open.
From then on until 2003, different players took each title – with unique winners for both Cincinnati and the US Open. 2003 saw American Andy Roddick win the Masters tournament and follow it up with what would be the only Grand Slam title of his career.
Then, of course, came Roddick’s biggest rival and tennis’ GOAT Roger Federer, who achieved that feat in 2005 – and then again in 2007. Those years fans might be familiar with as being part of Federer’s unparalleled reign of dominance, with five back-to-back titles at the US Open.
Since then, only one player has won Cincinnati and the US Open back-to-back, and that would be the current world no 1 and defending US Open champion Rafael Nadal, who achieved the feat in 2013 with wins over John Isner and Novak Djokovic respectively.
While there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Djokovic is on an upswing, there is some talk about Federer’s own endurance. Going by the trends between Cincinnati and the US Open, he will not take so deeply to heart the finals loss – that finish was good enough.
Will Djokovic himself be discouraged? That is doubtful, but it is definitely Nadal who has the easiest draw to the final, while Djokovic and Federer could well face off in the final eight, being drawn in the same quarter.
Federer has made two US Open finals since his 2008 win – which he very nearly extended to 2009 after the now well-known fight against Juan Martin Del Potro. He also went down to Novak Djokovic in the finals in 2015, although the draw will not permit that again.
The numbers may certainly work in favour of the Swiss – but more importantly, two big factors do too: his physical fitness and his unparalleled mental fortitude – for which, perhaps, he truly has no male equal.