They should have told us before play started at the last grand slam of the year, that its name had changed. No longer was it to be called the U.S Open or the U.S Open series. As we head on to the third round of play in New York, we now know its new name. The Survivor Series. Oh and the matches? They have not been matches at all. They have been fierce battles that put muscle, sinew, bone, and spirit to the test. The gladiators have fought each other in a stadium of herculean proportions, constantly crushed by the thunderous roar of an insatiable crowd clamoring for more. How could they not want more? Are they not entertained?
One after another, seed after seed have fallen at this sweat soaked tournament. The champions and assumed heirs to greatness have been picked off by far hungrier wolves. Simona Halep, Johanna Konta, Angelique Kerber, Alexander Zverev, Grigor Dimitrov and Svetlana Kuznetsova. They are all eliminated. Their march towards greatness cruelly halted. The last two names are the current champions of the Montreal and Cincinnati masters respectively. Even the greatest of champions have not been spared the pangs of a painful test in this series. Yesterday Rafael Nadal had to quickly right the ship after dropping the first set of his second round against Taro Daniel. He completed his battle in four sets and moves to the third round with a bit of a scare and nothing more.
On the contrary, Roger Federer’s play through the first two rounds has been nightmarish. For the second time in as many rounds, Federer was pushed to the precipice of defeat. In my article, Going the Distance, I asked if Federer was vulnerable in this tournament and answered my own question. Yes. I also said the ATP locker room would be licking their chops to get a shot at this Federer but would have to go the distance to knock him out. Mikhail Youzhny was definitely one of those players. A talented Russian cut from the same generation as Roger Federer, Mikhail Youzhny has crafted a fairly decent career for himself. Early on, he lived in the shadow of his more accomplished countrymen, Marat Safin and Nikolai Davydenko. However, Youzhny is a gifted shotmaker who can get on a sudden roll at any time and has had his fair share of career highlights, including ten titles and a career high ranking of world number 8. Despite a formidable resume, Youzhny had never defeated Roger Federer in sixteen attempts and as such, no one saw this match as a danger zone. It was.
Let’s get back to this Federer. After surviving his first round battle with Frances Tiafoe, Federer admitted to being cautious at times because of his back. That had most likely contributed to his less than average performance against the American. Yesterday, Federer chalked up his display to a lack of match practice. I’m not too convinced. I noticed a drop in Federer’s intensity, all the way back in Montreal. In his match against David Ferrer, he’d been lucky not to suffer his first defeat at the hands of the Spaniard. We all know what happened when he met a then inspired Alexander Zverev in the final. Even after skipping Cincinnati to rest his back, it is obvious that Federer isn’t fully recovered from whatever is bothering him physically. His form was up and down against Mikhail Youzhny. So was his intensity. Federer played a very passive match and he allowed Youzhny to build up enough confidence to start unloading on his one handed backhand. Youzhny played well but quite frankly he was an opportunist in this match.
Federer’s level fluctuated between scintillatingly high, and dreadfully low. The Swiss appeared to be riding the wave for a while and letting it take him wherever it wished. The Russian dutifully made the best of those lows, clawing his way back level in Set 2, and riding that wave all the way to Set 3. Sensing defeat looming, Federer finally played like… well like Federer. He moved with a sense of urgency reminiscent of a wounded warrior and his shots suddenly regained their familiar crispness. However, he was now facing an opponent who knew he was one set from victory. With Federer serving at 5 – 3 in the fourth set, Mikhail Youzhny rallied and broke back. 5 – 4. However, Federer could sense the danger of letting the Russian pull even by holding serve. He raised his game and broke to take the fourth set, 6 – 4. The final set followed a relievingly familiar script and both Federer and Youzhny fell into familiar roles. Federer took it with a comfortable score of 6 – 2. Once again, upset averted.
This victory does not come with the same sense of relief as his triumph over Tiafoe did. That match was taken to be a blip. A momentary reality to check to wake the champion up and get him in his stride. Yesterday’s battle, however, is proof that something is amiss. Federer faces Feliciano Lopez in the third round. The Spaniard is a dangerous serve and volley lefty who has caused a few problems for Federer in the past. They played a memorable night match at the 2007 U.S open, back when Federer was at his storied prime. Can Federer keep surviving battles like this all the way to the title? Most likely not. As great as he is, he needs to get his game in gear. Even with a depleted field, there are still dangerous floaters everywhere. Should he reach the semifinals a depleted warrior and face Nadal, his journey towards a sixth survivor series crown will most likely come to an abrupt and premature end.
Injury or match rust, Federer needs to pick up his level and fast. Against Lopez, he still has a chance to survive long enough to reach the second week. After all, it is as he said: the best of five format, gives you many lives.
Two down. Five more to go.