With a 16-0 record in the first round and 31-1 score in night matches, Roger Federer dominates matches like tonight’s at the US Open.
And with young Francis Tiafoe on the other end, you would have thought this would have been as lopsided as a young member of the Night’s Watch on Game of Thrones taking on the Night King himself.
But this was one of those nights where something strange happened. Tiafoe took Federer to the brink.
A 4-6 6-2 6-1 1-6 6-4 Federer win was the closest the Maestro came to going one and out at the US Open.
“I felt like the energy was in the building,” Federer said. “They were very excited about seeing me back on the court, especially after the year that I’ve had. They seemed like really a good crowd, crowd support for both players. It was a lot of fun playing in that atmosphere.
“You don’t want to see the one-sided clash. So I think the people did get what they want. They got a back and forth, bigger swings than what we normally are used to in the men’s game where it stays much more close in sets, not 6-1, 6-2 sets. The court plays on the slower side, so it can happen this way.
“Yeah, then at the end was the drama, the back and forth. It was very exciting. I really enjoyed myself even though maybe I also was tired and nervous at the end. It was very cool to be part of that match.
The 19 year-old Tiafoe was able to break Federer immediately in the first game, by using a good serve and finesse combination, where he changed speed on Federer. For a time that looked like the only blemish, as the American was able to take the first set from that break.
But Federer dominated the second and third sets and it looked like a walk in the park with an early hiccup.
“I mean, yeah, it was like, geez, those two sets went by pretty quick,” Tiafoe said.
But he had other thoughts and was able to take two breaks from Federer in the fourth to take the five-time Open champion to a fifth and deciding set.
Federer was out with a back injury since Montreal and that may have been the problem tonight. The back is fine, but he wasn’t able to do his normal prep for this tournament, which was why he may have seemed sluggish in the first set.
“I don’t think I had the preparation I was hoping to get,” Federer said. “Since Montreal, focus has been more on the back, making sure I can play the tournament rather than being well-prepared. I always knew I was going to come in feeling rusty or not great. I was hoping to start better.”
Ultimately, it was Federer’s experience that won out and an early break in the fifth on the young Tiefoe gave it to the Maestro.
“I think I was also being a bit cautious with my movement,” Federer said. “Then in the second set I think it all started to come together. That was good. But because of the preparation being not the best that I’ve had, I think I was quite up and down. Every time I was down, Frances took care of it. Then in the fifth, it was just more of get the energy back, you know, play to win, don’t just play to hope that he will miss.
“I think I did that, so I’m really, really excited that I won tonight. I’m very happy.”
And so was the Arthur Ashe crowd, who, unlike the characters in Game of Thrones, seemed to like having their Night King back.
It will be interesting to see if this was just a hiccup for Federer or if the rust continues as the tournament goes on.
“I enter the tournament, it’s because I believe I can play and go deep,” Federer said. “I still believe that. I think this will actually give me a lot of confidence. In the first set really I was just seeing and feeling it, see how far I could push, but I was never in pain. It was okay. That’s why when I was down a set, I just said, Okay, the match starts here. One set all, Okay, it’s a best-of-three set match. Being in the fifth set, I said, It’s great, I’m still in the match. Things are actually great.”