By In Stuff

Federer and time

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.

12 Responses to Federer and time

  1. David says:

    As a Wisconsin sports fan, with the Brewers tanking, the Badgers losing a heartbreaker, and the Packers getting smoked last night, I needed a feel-good sports story. Thanks, Joe.

  2. hawkbrand says:

    I think Federer’s greatness last night was his ability to outlast Monfils in the long rallies after the first two sets. Federer figured out afer the first two sets that if he could just extend the rallies Monfils was bound to make an error. Monfils made Federer look very pedestrian in the first two sets. Federer tried to be aggressive and realized it wasn’t workig for him. After Federer stopped being aggresive the match started turning his way. It was a good match until Monfils lost the the two match points. After those two points, Fed had tremendous confidence, and Monfils looked like he was just giving up thereafter. The final set was over before it even started.

    • Chris says:

      Agree completely. Monfils looked like he’d rather be anywhere else after Federer took that game in the fourth set. Those two points were Federer showing why he has the titles, and the remainder of the match was Monfils showing why he has none.

  3. brian says:

    “His best hope seemed to be that his name was Federer.” Brilliant.

  4. I’m not a huge tennis fan, but watching Monfils during this US Open I seriously wondered why this guy was #20, or whatever it was. Really? There are 19 guys better than him? But usually when these types of questions come up in my mind, the subject of my questions usually answers them for me. Unlike the guys currently in the top 5, Monfils was unable to stand up to the onslaught & calmly make the shots needed to turn the match back his way. A guy like Monfils needs to run the table. Once the tables get turned, these guys are just unable to answer. As it turns out, a lot of skill, confidence & experience (having been there) is required to turn the tide in a big match against a top opponent. Federer has that. Nadal, Murray and Joker have that. Some other guys on certain surfaces suting their games have that. Monfils, doesn’t.

  5. Ian says:

    Watching Federer has been one of the great joys of my sports watching life. Unlike other individual greats – Bonds, ARod, Tiger – he doesn’t have some off the field crud to drag him down. He’s simply great at his sport and seems like a nice guy off the court. That’s nice to see.

    How he’s changed as he’s gotten older is also amazing. He’s changed coaches and equipment but he’s still relentless. He’s always there. He’s played in every slam since 2000. You can beat him but he doesn’t quit. Think about that. Djokovic and Nadal have both missed slams and retired in matches in slams but Federer has always played. I love that consistency.

  6. Fred says:

    The great ones do not go quietly into the night.
    Geat narrative

  7. MisterMJ says:

    Fed played very poorly during the first two sets – resembling the lesser form of 2012 when he played with uncertainty, passivity, and shrinked during the big points. He had plenty of chances against Monfils – even during the two sets he lost – but he must’ve yanked at least 10 easy forehands long or wide during key moments. He also couldn’t buy a first serve, especially to the ad court. Fed seemed thrown off by Monfils’ ability to getting EVERYTHING back (even though he’s experienced this in nine previous match-ups) and his impatience, anger, and frustration showed.

    But it really was a matter of time. The first two sets breezed by (less than 80 minutes) so not too much of a physical strain for Fed. Even under the windy conditions, Fed was bound to play better and smarter while Monfils was bound to regress and start showcasing his mental midget tendencies. Fed was his worst enemy in the fourth set (gave up an early break advantage, couldn’t capitalize on multiple chances on Monfils’ serve, and made a mess of the 10th game, when his errors handed Monfils two match points) but his vintage form popped into view just at the nick of time. A little luck, yeah, but genius and greatness too. Despite his solid season, Fed has lost a lot of “winnable” matches this year (pretty much every loss outside Rafa at AO), especially the fifth set at Wimbledon when he had Nole on the ropes. So it’s nice to see him being cutthroat and stepping on Monfils.

    Yeah, I hated that Monfils collapsed after the two match points – giving up the break the very next game with consecutive double faults. He fed into what every commentator and analyst was saying – weak between the years, will fold like a tent, etc. It was all so predictable and sad to see.

  8. MikeN says:

    I thought last year would be the final Nadal Federer matchup. Now Edberg’s coaching seems to have extended his career.

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