Thursday, August 15, 2013

Roger Federer Survives and Makes Us All Happy

"I didn't come here to watch Tommy Haas."

That statement, made by a fan sitting next to me after Haas raced out to a set and a break lead over Roger Federer, summarized the feelings of nearly everyone at the Two Directions Open on Thursday afternoon. No offense to Tommy Haas, his backwards hat and his old man swag, but this much is clear, tennis is a sport about stars and everyone wants to see the two brightest play on Friday night.  The moment the brackets for this tournament came out, everyone circled the possibility of a Federer-Nadal quarterfinal match under the lights on an evening where we need not work the next day. It would almost certainly be scheduled for primetime, with the national television ESPN audience able to tune in and a chance for tennis to maintain the center of the sports world's stage. It is a matchup that is almost as good as it gets for a non-Grand Slam tennis tournament and everyone from the players to the fans to the tournament organizers were praying that it would take place.

But it almost didn't happen. Roger Federer played a first set today that one tennis reporter called "one of his worst sets for over a decade." If you were to have blinded yourself to the familiar face on the body, watching the first set, you would have insisted that Tommy Haas was playing a qualifier who had made it one step farther in the tournament than his skill set could support. Simply put, for forty minutes, it may have been the worst tennis we have seen from Roger Federer since before he began his reign of dominance. He made errors in a myriad of ways, shanking forehands, blowing volleys and at one point, missing a second serve return so poorly that it bounced up and nailed him in the face. It would have been a comedy of errors if not for the thought that it was potentially unbelievably sad. Sitting in the crowd (next to a woman who put three glasses of wine down before Haas even had his second break), I did what any aspiring blogger would do...I thought ahead to what I was going to write after the match. My angle was going to be sad, but necessary. I was going to produce the obituary for Roger Federer as a untouchable champion and usher in the era of "lets hope for one more Jimmy Connors-esque run before he packs it in and heads back to Switzerland."

But like all simplistic stories, this one was quickly destroyed by a comeback that showcased flashbacks of vintage Roger at his best. As old man Haas began to tighten with the burden of a huge win in his grasp, Federer found his stride down 3-1 in the second set. He was able to force Haas into longer rallies, hit a dazzling array of shots around the net and utilized his signature backhand slice to such perfection that Haas simply had no answer. The crowd, which just a few minutes earlier had been talking itself into the idea of Haas-Nadal ("well maybe it will be good honey...Tommy seems like a fine chap and you can still stare at Nadal like you do at home"), now was on its feet with tennis's most marquee match back on the table. Down 6-5, Haas served his worst game of the match, throwing in a double fault and some contemptible forehands to lose the second set and concede all momentum in the battle, culminating in a brilliant display of temper, hitting a tennis ball outside of the Center Court Stadium on set point (for what its worth, I followed the ball path from my high perch and saw it land on the ground outside the stadium. A man walked by, picked it up not realizing it came from Haas-Federer and calmly threw it back towards a practice court, thereby unknowingly giving away a priceless souvenir).

After the comeback, the result of the match was a foregone conclusion. Federer was never pushed in the third set and closed out the match to the cheers of an adoring crowd. The adulation was in part based on seeing potentially the greatest player to ever play the game, win in their medium-sized Midwestern city. But it was also about anticipation as much as excitement. Just like Brooks and Dunn, Simon and Garfunkel, Laurel and Hardy or Franklin and Bash, Federer-Nadal is composed of two excellent individual parts, but they become magic only when combined together. It looked as if Roger was almost certain to not hold up his end of the bargain, but he reached back into his reserves and won the matchup of graceful old farts. Therefore tomorrow we get magic, and while the final performance may not be quite on the level of their legendary past battles, the anticipation and excitement will make it quite the event.

Assuming of course Dimitrov (who has been known to ruin a few relationships) doesn't screw all of this up tonight....