In 2008 Roger Federer won his fifth US Open title in a row by beating his emerging rivals Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray back-to-back. A year later, he returned to New York as the heavy favourite for the title, particularly when he found himself up against the relatively untested Juan Martin del Potro in the final. But the young Argentine, despite being on the back foot for much of the final, ultimately outmuscled the Swiss to win the title.
Few would then have predicted the decade of frustration that Federer has since endured in the Big Apple. Despite numerous semifinal appearances, Federer has reached just one final at the US Open since his defeat at the hands of del Potro, which he lost in four sets to Djokovic in 2015. That raises the question, what has gone wrong for the world #3 since 2008 at the US Open?
2009 – Final – del Potro def. Federer 3-6 7-6 4-6 7-6 6-2
In what is no doubt one of his worst losses at the US Open. Federer had been cruising towards victory at a set and a break up. Serving for the second set at 30-0 up he had a fairly easy put away which he failed to take advantage of. A few points later the Argentine del Potro was back on serve. Federer had other chances in the match, but he did not take them either and the rest, as they say, is history.
Up until that point the match was as many would have expected, the then-world #1 had been playing well and del Potro had evidently been overawed by the occasion of his first Grand Slam final. But once the youngster got back on serve, the match completely turned. The shackles immediately came off and the 6’6” tall man was able to bring his big forehand into play and he hammered Federer into submission with it. The Swiss’ serve also abandoned him in the latter stages, as he hit 11 double faults and landed just 51% of his first serves.
Reason Federer lost: He let del Potro back in the match. When he had his younger inexperienced opponent on the ropes he needed to keep him there, but he proved unable to do so. In contrast, when del Potro had Federer on the defensive, he put his man down in the dust decisively.
2010 – Semifinal – Djokovic def. Federer 5-7 6-1 5-7 6-2 7-5
After beating Djokovic in the last three years at Flushing Meadows, most expected the five time champion to claim a fourth victory in 2010. But the Serbian, who had endured an indifferent year despite his top four ranking, had other ideas. The 23-year-old Serbian found himself 4-2 up in the opening set only to collapse and gift the set to Federer, who broke to love at 5-5.
The Swiss returned the favour with his game completely abandoning him in the second set. The third and fourth followed a very similar pattern to those before, Federer edging one partly due to Djokovic’s errors and not getting started in the fourth after a great passing shot from Djokovic put the underdog ahead.
The fifth set, the only real set of sustained quality from both, was more or less an even battle throughout. But when facing two match points on serve at 4-5, Djokovic produced a great driving volley followed by a powerful forehand down the line to hold his opponent off. That gave him the confidence to seize control of the match as he reeled off three games in a row to claim the win.
Reason Federer lost: He just couldn’t sustain his level. His play for three of the five sets was solid enough, but too many of his 65 unforced errors came in bursts in the second and fourth sets. Had he been able to compete better in these sets the result may have been completely different. Instead, the 23-year-old Djokovic won both at a canter, giving him the energy and confidence he needed to claim the decider.
2011 – Semifinal – Djokovic def. Federer 6-7 4-6 6-3 6-2 7-5
Djokovic headed into another semifinal clash with Roger Federer as reigning Australian Open and Wimbledon champion, with a 62-2 record for the year. The only man who had stopped him at a Grand Slam that year? Federer at Roland Garros. And the great Swiss looked to be in good position to repeat that victory when he edged into a two-set lead, helped by some costly Djokovic errors at vital points.
But Djokovic, in the midst of the finest season of his career and hunting a first US Open title, was undeterred by the deficit. With the Swiss’ level dropping and the Serbian’s rising, there was only one way the next two sets were going to go as Djokovic swiftly erased Federer’s advantage to send the match into another decider.
Just as in 2010, it was a thriller. And just as in 2010, it was the Serbian who emerged triumphant. Despite surrendering his serve to love and facing two match points against the Federer’s serve, Djokovic escaped again, in no small part thanks to one of the finest returns ever hit on a tennis court. After squandering those match points, Federer proved unable to resist Djokovic’s late charge as the world #1 stormed through to the final, where he beat Rafael Nadal in four sets.
Reason Federer lost: Ultimately, match points at 40-15 on serve isn’t a position any player, let alone Federer should be losing from. Without a doubt his opponent upped his game but as the great Swiss said: “I only have myself to blame”.
2012 – Quarterfinal – Berdych 7-6 6-4 3-6 6-3
Coming off his first Grand Slam win in two and a half years at Wimbledon and following it up by winning the Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati, Federer looked to be the heavy favourite going into the US Open. He had, after all, inflicted bruising defeats on Djokovic at Wimbledon and in Cincinnati, whilst Murray had suffered a heartbreaking loss to him in the final at the All England Club and Nadal was absent through injury.
But despite then having a flawless record under the night sky of New York, he found himself up against Tomas Berdych in the form of his life. The big-hitting Czech imposed himself from the outset, climbing all over the Swiss’ serve and forcing him to yield control of the baseline with some thunderous hitting. Federer managed to win just 45% of the points behind his second serve and though Berdych wobbled to lose the third set from a break up, he regained his composure to finish the match in the fourth.
Reason Federer lost: No doubt Federer didn’t play a great match, but at the same time he simply wasn’t allowed to. When a player of Berdych’s calibre is able to redline their game there’s very little even the likes of Federer can do. Sometimes too good is too good.
This series continues with Part 2.
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