When a pair of all-time greats have played each other over 40 times, one would think all talking points would be exhausted by that point. It’s a credit to Roger Federer that, at 34, he’s reinvented himself to the point where it’s not a foregone conclusion that he’ll lose to the top player of the world smack-dab in the middle of his prime. Federer has reached the championship match in New York without dropping a set, and his draw did feature some worthy opponents (most notably John Isner and Stan Wawrinka). In the unlikely event he defeats Novak Djokovic in straight sets, he would be the first man in the Open Era to win the U.S. Open in such an unblemished fashion.
With his relentless attack and furious pace, Federer has put the pressure on his opposition to come up with answers fast. It proved to be too much for Wawrinka, a big match player who can’t bring complete focus week-in, week-out. An even match midway through the first set, Federer’s first use of the “SABR,” though overhyped, threw off the rhythm of the match, providing a chance for Fed to seize the lead. It was a plot twist from which Wawrinka never had the time to recover from, as Federer did not allow him to settle in.
Federer has done the same to countless opponents since his straight set quarterfinal loss to Wawrinka at the French Open, including Djokovic in Cincinnati, claiming that title as a consolation prize for a second loss in the Wimbledon final in as many years to the Serbian. Regardless of how great Federer looked in that win, it’s hard to get past the impression from Wimbledon: even after an all-time great semifinal performance over Andy Murray, his attack was blunted by Djokovic in the final, and that was on a surface that gave Federer his greatest possible advantage.
Though Djokovic only has one U.S. Open title and the new semi-completed roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium has created a dome-like atmosphere (Federer thrives indoors), the path to victory contains the same obstacle for Federer: this cannot be a prolonged match. Even in his younger years, Federer was prone to getting roped down in a best-of-five format by Rafael Nadal. “But Rafa’s forehand provided a singular challenge,” many would say. Djokovic, however, has matured into a similar threat, as not even Murray defends the Federer serve anywhere close to as well as the current world No. 1.
Like Nadal, this version of Djokovic manages to push Federer out of his comfort zone that he resides in against every other player. Federer knows he has to be more aggressive and precise, and that in and of itself seems to add to his mental burden over what could easily be a three-hour affair, if not more.
Could Federer surprise and win his first major in over three years? Yes, as he’s demonstrated the elite level of tennis requisite for such a feat. Until he shows he can sustain that level of brilliance over best-of-five, the smart money is on Djokovic.
Prediction: Djokovic in 4 sets