Mikhail Youzhny’s father was a colonel in the Soviet Army. But today Mikhail was facing Roger Federer, tennis’ Commander-in-Chief.
The Russian once bloodied himself when he smacked his forehead with his racket. But few thought he would draw blood against Roger.
In Russia, Youzhny is famous for his silly lollipop commercials. Today, many presumed he would be nothing but a lollipop. After all, Federer had beaten him in all 16 of their meetings.
More than anything, one of the greatest quips in sports history hovered over Youzhny’s second-round match. There are few better boasts in tennis than the comment by Vitas Gerulaitis, when he was asked about winning a match against Jimmy Connors, whom he’d lost to 16 straight times. The late, great New Yorker said, “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.” And indeed, Vitas had won.
Nonetheless, it was clear Youzhny would not win today. Federer toyed with him in the opening set and raced to a ho-hum 6-1, 4-2 lead. Certainly it would be a short day for the man with the short hair.
Everyone is hoping for a Roger-Rafa semi, and seen-it-all photographer Ed Goldman said, “Great, we’re soon gonna be one step closer to that semi I have to have.”
But hold on. Youzhny may now be ranked No. 101, but he twice reached the US Open semis and has one of the most wicked one-handed backhands in the game. In his 17th year on tour, he’s been to many a tennis rodeo, and in the seventh game of the second set he climbed into his saddle, blasting blistering backhands and shocking Fed fans as he grabbed the initiative.
Suddenly The Almighty Roger seemed diminished. His second serve slowed. He played tight. His timing was off. His net charges fizzled. He seemed to hit far too many backhand slices. Time and again he shanked his forehand.
Wife Mirka winced. His coaches bit their nails. In five games he suffered 13 unforced errors. Fed watchers wondered why. Was his back tightening? Had the first games been too easy? His road to the quarterfinals is not that bumpy. Was he looking ahead?
For the second time in three days Roger was caught in a surprising dogfight. Yes, in his first-round against Frances Tiafoe he was playing a night match under Ashe’s roof against an upstart teen with raw power and nothing to lose. Today it was an outdoor afternoon match against a seasoned campaigner he’d faced since 1998.
And today, just like against Tiafoe, the Federerian calvary came in just at the right time, as Roger the Battler emerged in the fourth set. He displayed adept volleys and impressive backhands to turn the match around, and all the while the Russian began to struggle with painful cramps.
Federer broke Youzhny to even the match at two sets all. Never mind that Roger had sashayed to the Wimbledon title without losing a set. He was hardly a stranger to five-set epics. To win the Aussie Open he had to go the distance against Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and Rafa.
Broadcaster Cliff Drysdale captured the excitement. “This is the drama of live sports,” he said. But clearly, Youzhny was hobbled, while little was cramping Federer’s considerable style. Soon Drysdale noted, “This match is as good as toast.”
The Swiss man, who has played 49 five-set matches and won 29 of them, effortlessly called on all his experience and confidence in a battle that ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.
After 3:08, Federer hit a routine overhead and photographer Ed Goldman exhaled. The US Open tennis tournament was one important step closer to the Roger vs. Rafa dream matchup that just about every tennis fan worth his or her mettle wants.