I Was Wrong
by Jerry Balsam

For those who believed that Roger Federer’s days in the winner’s circle at major championships had come to an end — no names, please — the events of Monday evening (the first Monday final since 1987) were a revelation. He had substantial help from Andy Murray, to be sure, as the Scotsman first knocked out Rafael Nadal and then failed to rise to the occasion in the final. But Federer was Federer again, and it was a pleasure to see. It was also a treat to sit in Box 56E (see map of Ashe), courtesy of a friend who provided me with two tickets. I was closer to the action than over 90% of the fans, and sat in the shade throughout the match. The usual Snapfish photo album appears here.


Monday, September 8, 2008


Men’s Singles, Final, Ashe

Roger Federer (2) d. Andy Murray (6), 6-2 7-5 6-2


There’s not much to add to a point-by-point blog posted by the New York Times, so I’ll try to focus on what was unique from my perspective before recalling some of the crucial points of the match. First, it was a treat to see the match with my Cousin Ira, who has accompanied me on tennis jaunts over the years at Flushing Meadows and points north.


Ira and I tended to adopt some of the lesser-known players. We saw the journeyman Daniel Vacek lose at the US Open to Justin Gimelstob (in a five-setter in the second round in 1999) and to Vincent Spadea (in a four-setter in the first round in 1996).


In New Haven in 1998, we saw Pete Sampras mail one in against Leander Paes, leaving the doubles specialist with a career 1-0 record against the player who accumulated the most major titles ever (at least as of this writing). The same day, we saw Tim Henman beat Davide Sanguinetti in their first meeting. The two were to play three times, and each time Henman came back from losing the first set. We also saw an unlikely but well-earned win for Guillaume Raoux over Patrick Rafter (punctuated by Raoux’s complaint about the noise from someone bouncing a basketball behind the court) and the eventual champion Karol Kucera’s closely contested win over Jan Siemerink. After match point, Kucera hit a ball into the stands in celebration. Ira caught it as a souvenir, which it remained until his young nephew bounced it enough that the ink identifying the ball wore off.


In Newport in 2001, we saw Martin Damm cruise past Irakli Labadze, who slipped and slid on the grass, mimicking a skier as he complained about the surface. (Labadze must have liked grass better in 1998, when he made the junior Wimbledon final, losing to a guy named Federer.) Our program that day featured a surprise win for Glenn Weiner over Andre Sa, who looked (but did not exactly play) like a young Pete Sampras.


This was Ira’s first US Open final, and my third. In 1976, I was a pup (relatively speaking) when Jimmy Connors disappointed me by defeating Bjorn Borg on the Har-Tru of Forest Hills. A quarter-century later, in 2001, I was disappointed again when Lleyton Hewitt picked up his first major title, defeating Pete Sampras. In 2008, for the first time, I got what I wanted in a final.


The pre-match festivities included Harry Connick, Jr. singing America the Beautiful while a color guard unfurled an oversized American flag over the court, as well as an F-15 flyover with the planes appearing from out of nowhere before streaking above us. The stands were probably about half-filled at the 5:00 p.m. start, with the court entirely in the shadows and the lights on. By the time the match ended, the stands were at least 90% full.


If the prospects of Scotsmen playing tennis provided an easy laugh for Monty Python, Andy Murray has changed that. He’s filled out, gotten into shape (despite what looked like a nasty bruise, or perhaps a birthmark, on his right calf), and plays a clever game that is difficult to dismantle. Against Federer, he stayed with one tactic he had used against Nadal, standing far behind the baseline to receive the first serve. On almost every occasion in which he had a choice, he kept the ball to Federer’s backhand. It was not a bad idea, but it didn’t work, because Federer played superb defense, often slicing his backhand to keep it low, waiting patiently for the chance to scoot to his left and hit a forehand. When that opportunity came on a short ball, Murray was typically doomed. The stat sheet tells us that Federer came to net 44 times and won 70% of those points, whereas Murray made only 11 forays into the forecourt.


Federer earned his first break point in the fourth game of the match, and converted one for a 4-2 lead in the sixth. He broke again in the eighth game to complete a 6-2 stroll through the first set.


The second set was much tighter and proved decisive. Federer won 36 points to Murray’s 35, and each won 41% of his receiving points. For a while, Murray was getting into Federer’s service games more than the other way around. Federer went up an early break at 2-0, but Murray broke back at love — the first time in the match he’d drawn blood — and the match was on. In retrospect, the turning point was the fifth game. When Federer, serving at 2-2, netted a backhand volley, he fell behind 0-40, having lost 11 of the last 12 points. He hit his way out of trouble, though it’s been reported that one of Federer’s drives to the baseline in fact went over, and Murray’s failure to challenge cost him what would have been a crucial break.


When Federer served at 5-5, he went up 30-0, but he failed to come to net after lobbing over Murray, and the Scotsman eventually worked his way back into the point and won it. Federer then shanked a backhand for 30-30, but he stopped the bleeding right there and held for 6-5. After the changeover, the old Federer came back onto the court, the one who could always kick his engine into another gear when he needed it. He opened the game with a beautifully placed forehand approach that proved an outright winner. A backhand volley brought him to 0-30. Federer chipped and charged off Murray’s generally weak second serve, and a combination of two overheads brought him to triple set point. He needed only one, as he pounced with his forehand off a Murray drop shot that was not good enough. Federer, who has displayed emotion in this tournament, pumped his fists in glee; Murray returned to his chair and spiked his racquet to the court.


Donald Trump appeared in his box for the third set. He watched the match stoically, almost motionless. He must have practice sitting for portraits.


Cousin Ira opined that Murray, having made his stand in the second set and fallen short, was done now. That’s pretty much how it played out. Federer broke at love for 2-0. He needed a couple of deuces to hold for 3-0, but then he broke at love again and held at love to race to 5-0. The umpire announced: “New balls,” and Ira said: “They can put them back in the can; they’ll still be new.” Almost. Murray, who did not give up, held at 15 and then broke a somewhat careless Federer at 30 to creep back to 2-5. At deuce in the eighth game, Murray double faulted, giving Federer his first match point. Federer hit a marvelous running forehand pass just before the ball bounced a second time, but Murray saved himself with a stab backhand volley. That was Murray’s last moment. At deuce, Federer clocked a crosscourt backhand that overwhelmed Murray. On his second match point, Federer attacked again. Murray retrieved one overhead, but couldn’t get back the second, and Federer collapsed to the court, overjoyed with his 13th major title. He announced in Dick Enberg’s post-match interview that he doesn’t intend to stop here, and I hope he’s able to make good on that undertaking in 2009.


I don’t expect we’ll ever again see the Federer who would win three majors in a good year and two in an off season. I don’t think he’ll ever win the French Open. He’s not young anymore, and the competition now is too good. But can he squeeze out two more majors to surpass Sampras before he hangs up his racquet? Put me down for a cautiously optimistic yes.