September 1, 2017
The superstars aren’t playing like superstars right now. That’s the truth of it. At least they are still alive and kicking. But they are also there for the taking.
The destiny of the US Open men’s title hangs in the balance. Can Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer raise their game to roll back the years and summon the excellence that made them the best players in the world again earlier this year?
Maybe. But it has been a momentous year for both living legends, with so many gruelling matches to win. And you sense that a recharging of the batteries might soon be required for at least one of them, before they come again in 2018.
What does that mean for the crowds at Flushing Meadows, who want to see Nadal and Federer at their brilliant best pretty much immediately? Well, the main thing is that they are guaranteed to see the sport’s two greatest heroes once more this week.
But the whispers have started. Anyone who can put together some sparkling form from this point on is a serious contender. The time is right for someone new to upset Federer or Nadal and ultimately win the US Open.
Nadal will argue that he is still standing and that means he is still dangerous. Yet he struggled to overcome Japan’s Taro Daniel, hardly a leading force in tennis, though very capable of course, as he showed us all against Rafa.
Indeed Daniel was a set and a break up before Nadal unleashed two booming forehands to save the day and put himself back on the victory trail.
At least the 31-year-old Spaniard produced something approaching his best when he needed to do so. But even he knew that his overall performance left something to be desired.
‘It’s true that I didn’t play very well tonight. But it’s also true that I am through to the next round,’ said Nadal, who won through 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 and did at least take more convincing control towards the end of his encounter.
Let’s not rule out Rafa just yet. He may look vulnerable, but he has as good a chance as anyone else in New York. It’s just that he doesn’t put fear in opponents here, not like he did as a younger man or even earlier this year, during his remarkable resurgence.
Perhaps Federer’s problem is more acute. Trying to put a recent back problem behind him, the Fed has lacked fluency and just faced his first pair of five-setters in the opening rounds of any Grand Slam he has played in.
Roger was two sets to one down and staring defeat in the face. True, he is 36 and we should just be so grateful that he is still competing. But his opponent, Mikhail Youzhny is no spring chicken at 35. And Federer was 16-0 in their head-to-head going into the match.
In short, it shouldn’t have been this dramatic. So what’s wrong with Roger? Why was he 6-1, 6-7 (3-7), 4-6 down, before recovering to win the final two sets 6-4, 6-2?
Sounds like Federer is jaded, but is desperately trying to tell himself he isn’t. He said: ‘This match wasn’t about the back, which is good. This is more just a grind. I felt different, completely different, the way it played and everything.
‘I’m really, really happy I got through. These five-set battles are actually quite a lot of fun and I feel quite warmed up now.’
Sixty-eight errors from the master of tennis is an uncharacterstic statistic, though. And whether his 36-year-old body will be telling its owner he is ‘quite warmed up’ moving towards the business end of the tournament is open to debate.
Perhaps Roger is right, and he will ignite his best tennis from here, to launch a serious bid for his third Grand Slam title of the year.
More likely, Roger’s body will be telling him: ‘After the US Open, can we please have another good long rest and come back super-fresh for Australia? And then can we skip the claycourt season, and come back with a bang once more at Wimbledon 2018?’