Yes, it was an extraordinary thing watching Roger Federer fight off time yet again Thursday night. He looked positively beaten when down two sets to the preposterously talented Gael Monfils. Even after gutting his way through the third set, Federer still looked beaten. It wasn’t until Federer held off two match-points in the fourth set — one by aggressively attacking the net, the other with an overpowering forehand after a tentative Monfils shot — that any doubt cleared. In the next game Federer broke Monfils both literally and figuratively, and the match was done. The score line read: 4-6, 4-6, 6-5, 7-5, 6-2.
We learn so much about great athletes in their later years. It wasn’t until Ali stopped dancing that we learned about his chin and his heart. It wasn’t until Nicklaus stopped soaring drives past everyone else that we understood his peerless mind for golf. It wasn’t until Jordan was earthbound that we appreciated his resourcefulness. It wasn’t until Henry Aaron’s bat slowed that we could fully see his singular genius for hitting a baseball.
Federer’s game level never really rose Thursday night. Monfils hit the ball cleaner, he hit the ball harder, he moved faster and for much of the night he played more confidently. Monfils has always had scattered moments like these, moments when anyone watching is left wondering how he ever loses. He played in that atmosphere for a long time, and Federer played well below his usual stuff. There seemed no clear way for Federer to turn that match around — his best hope seemed to be that his name was Federer, and that would weigh heavily on Monfils.
So … Federer used that. For the next two sets, he put constant pressure on Monfils. It wasn’t often heavy pressure. At times, he would charge the net recklessly and leave cavernous gaps for Monfils to hit passing shots. At other times, Federer would slice and push the ball over the net without much pace — the attacker in retreat. You know of Ali’s famous fight against Ernie Terrell where between punches Ali would taunt, “What’s my name? What’s my name?” That’s what Federer’s shots seemed to be doing, not in a taunting way but as a constant reminder.
“Nice shot Gael, but can you do it again? … What’s my name? … Think of how many times I have beaten you … What’s my name? … You passed me this time but can you keep doing it? … What’s my name? … You stayed in the point for 25 shots, but do you have a 26th shot? … Are you willing to keep hitting the ball into the court all night to beat me? Do you have that in you? … What’s my name?”
Monfils almost broke Federer a couple of times with the match in the balance. But he didn’t get the breaks. Monfils almost made a spectacular backhand pass on match point that would have changed the night and, perhaps, his life. But he didn’t make it. One narrative of the night was that this was Monfils career writ large.
But the large story was Federer, and a wondrous night in front of 23,000 New Yorkers pleading for magic. Federer’s game was often duct tape and paperclips and whatever rope he could find in the garage, but when he was almost done he found small bits of inspiration from somewhere. No one ever doubted Federer’s greatness, of course. But Thursday night, at age 33, it seems to me he was great in a different way from ever before.