US Open: The Mighty Fed's Heroic Comeback—"Tonight Was Emotional for Me"

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By Bill Simons and John Huston

The 23,000 most boisterous yuppies in sports were ecstatic. They were in full voice, their drinks were cold, their passions hot.

And why not?

Tonight, in the most electric, sizzling arena a gentleman’s game has ever concocted, the greatest player in history, Roger (“Do allow us to worship you”) Federer, and a charismatic athlete/showman like no other, France’s Gael Monfils, were glorious gladiators, locked in delicious combat.

Gael slid, he sprawled, he leaped. He slapped laser forehands and gestured to the throng that adored him. Meanwhile Roger was (sort of) Roger—slicing backhands, charging the net, unleashing backhand overheads, punching returns. and blasting forehands.

But this wasn’t quite the Roger we know, we expect, we love, we embrace.

This was not the Zen man who is calm under every circumstance, the man you would want by your side as your ship goes down. The warrior you’d want in your foxhole.

Too often, Roger was bothered by unkind gusts. Too often, his forehand flew. Too often, he was hapless as Monfils’ forehands whizzed by, an unwelcome blur.  And too often, Roger’s volleys found the net or the alley, as he dropped the first two sets.

This could not be.

For this was to be Roger’s Open, a sweet swan song. The old man, 33, was destined to win one more—this one.

Rafa, his dreaded foe, was a no-show. His early foes were (dare we say) chums. En route to tonight’s quarterfinal battle, he’d only lost one set. His other two rivals—Serb Djokovic and Scot Murray—were camped far away on the other side of the draw. Now all the Mighty Fed had to do was again beat Mr. Underachiever, Gael Monfils, who he had owned.

So why was this night different from virtually all other nights at Ashe, where Roger had amassed an astounding 25-1 record?

Well, let us speculate, that Roger likes order. He likes to know what he’s facing, whether it be a power server or backboard scrambler. And Monfils is hard to figure out, hard to peg, and, on this incredible night, hard to beat.

He’s nonchalantly brilliant one moment, and he all but tanks another, hitting right to the bottom of the net. His loopy two-handed backhand is more a serviceable than a memorable stroke. What is memorable is his imposing forehand, his rifle serve, and an NBA-like (or is it NFL-like?) athleticism, which he flashes freely. Rope-a-dope ease combines with a lean, mean force that dazzles.

Playing fast, ignoring an injured ankle, spurred by the stunning buzz in Ashe, the Frenchman yelled “Allez!” as he sprinted to the better side of a 6-4, 6-3 scoreline. Big forehand, big charisma, big lead—he imposed and commanded.

Roger was doomed.

But then again, Roger has an assortment of tennis skills, and despite all his beauty and serenity, one of them is the ability to be a nasty street fighter: to scratch and scrape. His five US Open titles weren’t handed to him on a platter. He never gives up.

Still, Monfils was zoning big time. There were points in the first two sets where Federer seemed flat-footed, at a loss about what to do—genuinely rattled by Monfils’ carefree quirks and unpredictable attacks.

Then again, Roger has successfully fought back from two sets down eight times at the Slams. As the crowd squealed, he remained calm, and—allow us to say—”Rogered” on. Keeping his level high and his play aggressive, he was perhaps waiting for the mercurial Monfils to return to earth.

And down to earth Monfils fell, one characteristically goofy lapse at a time, whether it be a request for a can of Coke during a fourth-set changeover, a failure to convert two match points on Federer’s serve later in the fourth, or a decision to hit a ‘tweener shot in the decisive fifth set.

Federer took the match points with just the right mix of intelligence of fearlessness. “It’s not something you ever get used to,” he said afterward. “The margins are so, so slim at that point that it’s not really in your control anymore. He needs one net cord or something so silly. When guys wish you good luck before the match, that’s when you hope it’s gonna kick in [laughter] … Today I definitely got lucky. But I felt like I was forcing the issue, so maybe there was some merit from that standpoint.”

And to be fair, by the time Monfils hit a curious ‘tweener, the match had been decided by Roger’s ruthless tenacity. At the end of his 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 victory, he was the Roger New York knows and expects—in command.

At 28, ranked No. 24 in the world, Monfils had—as he’d predicted a few days earlier—played a match he could tell his grandchildren about. At 33, with 17 Slam titles to his name, Roger wants to win another one.

As for those 23,000 zany yuppies, they played a role, too. “I felt they definitely wanted the match to go on,” a smiling Federer said afterward. “Didn’t matter who [Monfils] was playing, I believe. Still, I felt very much a warm support for me— wanting me to go out, you know, fighting and believing that I could turn this thing around. That’s the feeling the crowd gave me.

When the crowd gives you that…it grows your belief that you can hit better shots, you can dig out more tough balls, you can serve better. …That just helps solidify your belief. I must say tonight was actually quite emotional for me. I thought the crowd was incredible. They definitely got me through the match out there. I really enjoyed it, and I can’t wait for the next match to come around.

There is nobody like New Yorkers, and this stadium here is phenomenal. Once they clamp down and get into it, it is truly special. I have played some amazing matches here, but maybe not enough over the years. I’m happy I got through one tonight. Regardless if I won or lost it, it was special.”

But not as special as a dreamy Swiss athlete who is so incredible that  time and again he makes the most miraculous of tennis turnarounds seem not ho-hum, but almost ordinary.