Let’s not suggest that the emperor has no clothes. But Roger Federer is looking old. His wrinkles, well, they seem like canyons. And today he faced a baby – that would be “Baby Fed.” Maria Sharapova’s former boyfriend, Grigor Dimitrov, is by far the best player in Bulgarian history.
But the US Open is 4,710 miles from Bulgaria, and presumably Grigor Dimitrov would have little chance against the GOAT. Dimitrov’s ranking had dropped to No. 78. He hadn’t beaten Federer in seven attempts and he’d won only four games in their last meeting. Plus, wasn’t this Open supposed to be all about history? Hopes were high that Serena would win a record 24th Slam and Roger and Rafa would at last meet at the US Open in a final for the ages.
Nadal had done his part. He was into the semis. And Roger seemed to be doing his thing. With pinpoint serving the eternal champion, the man who kicks time in the gut, won the first set over his nervous foe. But Grigor fought back. He served well and found the open court. His forehand delivered, his variety kept Roger guessing and off balance. He roared back in the second set and gained command with heavy striking and high percentage play. Fed seemed flawed, almost fragile. His favorite shot, his forehand, flew errant. But Roger is Roger, the elegant street-fighting man. He served lights out and calmly prevailed in the third set. Ashe Stadium breathed a sigh of relief.
Roger was back in the saddle. Just maybe we’d get that historic final that everyone craved. But the Bulgarian bristled. Unlike in his other matches against Roger, the 28-year-old felt a certain presence. Did all his coaching from sage Andre Agassi have its impact? Grigor had belief. You saw it in his body, in his eyes and in the flow of his beautiful strokes. Never mind that he’d lost seven of eight matches coming into the Open and had long been dismissed as the prime example, even more than Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori, of a lost generation of wannabes who, let’s be candid, had fizzled.
But in the fourth set, a nearly 20-minute game at 2-4 on Federer’s serve was decisive. It took its toll. Dimitrov later confided, “I was very happy even though I lost the game. I did exactly what I wanted to do.”
What he did was lose the battle, but win the war. He did what’s done so often in football and boxing – he wore out his foe, and soon took the critical 55-minute fourth set to even the Ashe Stadium marathon. Effectively, the match was over. Federer took a medical time out for his back and neck. “Well, I just needed some treatment…Just needed to try to loosen it up, crack it and see if it was going to be better.”
It wasn’t. The Bulgarian roared and quickly broke serve in the first game. He held serve at love three times and won 24 of 37 points in the lopsided final set, as he sprinted to a 3-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 win.
Once again our great elder dramatically fell. A kind of uneasy, almost depressing déja vu descended. Federer fans recalled how their hero had fallen in every possible way in the last five Slams he’d played. Since his 2018 Australian Open win, the GOAT has come up short. On grass, his favorite surface, he dropped an epic Wimbledon marathon to big-hitting Kevin Anderson. In stifling humidity the 2018 Open, he fell to a journeyman, Aussie John Millman. This year in Australia a flashy kid, Stefanos Tsitsipas, swept by him. In a Paris windstorm he was humbled by Nadal, and at Wimbledon he suffered an epic fail in a classic battle with Djokovic – he blinked at crunch time.
When IT asked Grigor what Roger’s greatest trait is, he replied, “One of the best qualities I’ve always admired in him is moving on. Doesn’t matter what kind of point he’s playing – winning, losing – he just moves on. That’s a hell of a quality to have…that’s also where his mental strength comes from.”
But that was not enough tonight for the aging battler. He suffered an astounding 60 unforced errors and just 40 winners. He had the lead, but never came close to sealing the deal. Not surprisingly, the ever-gracious Fed commented, “This is Grigor’s moment and not my body’s moment.”
The man who bends time was now bending the story of tonight’s match. After all, virtually any time Roger walks on court, the focus is on him. Still, there was joy. One of the greatest underachievers in memory had achieved mightily.
“This match could be career-changing – no hyperbole there,” noted John McEnroe. Grigor embraced the moment: big stage, big moment, big foe. He beamed with joy at his moment of triumph – he’d reached his third Grand Slam semi. And on his night of nights, not one of the 23,500 souls in the packed stadium would have dared mutter those two wretched words: “Baby Fed.”
[Also Reporting: Douglas Hochmuth]