The rumbling of the No. 7 train reverberated through the new Louis Armstrong Stadium as Roger Federer reflected on recent travels.
Seated on a makeshift podium in the center of the court during US Open media day, Federer was asked if he was puzzled by a decade of derailments after dominating Flushing Meadows for five consecutive years.
“Not puzzling, because I feel like the two semis with match points were tough against Novak [Djokovic]. The finals was rough here,” Federer said. “I have won some and lost some close ones here in New York. And then, you know, some years I just lost against a better guy. And some years it just didn’t work out.
“I think there are explanations for everything, especially the last two years, and the other ones were just close, which is unfortunate, I guess. But for me it’s not puzzling. I won the US Open five times. So I stand here pretty happy, to be quite honest. It’s not like, God, the US Open never worked out for me. It hasn’t the last couple years, but it’s all good.”
Navigating challenging US Open draws can be like maneuvering through the congested New York City subway system. There’s a route to reach your desired destination—and often a sweaty, noisy, crowded adventure required to get there.
Three weeks after celebrating his birthday, the father of four will play his first Grand Slam tournament as a 37-year-old aiming for an Open Era-record sixth US Open title. It’s been 10 years since Federer swept Andy Murray in the 2008 final and nine years since he was two points from capturing a sixth straight only to bow to Juan Martin del Potro.
This 50th US Open marks the first time in more than a year the Big 4 will play the same Slam and carries major repurcussions in the all-time Grand Slam race.
Hall of Famer John McEnroe says Flushing Meadows is a historic crossroads.
“If you think about the fact that Federer won Australia, and he’s our greatest player ever, Nadal won the French, he’s our second greatest, Djokovic won Wimbledon, who is one of our top four or five greatest ever, and Murray is a first ballot Hall of Famer, even Wawrinka has won three,” ESPN analyst McEnroe told the media on a conference call promoting ESPN’s US Open coverage. “If you look at those four, especially so far there seems to be a bit of a vacuum about who is going to step up, the unknown. You’re talking about a historic time in our sport for the past 10 years.”
This US Open can reshape the immediate future if one of three iconic champions prevail.
If world No. 1 Rafael Nadal successfully defends the Open, he will claim his 18th Grand Slam crown moving to within two of Federer. If Wimbledon winner Novak Djokovic wins his second straight Slam, he’ll own 14 majors, equaling Pete Sampras, and moving to within three Slams of Nadal. And if Federer wins
“This is the situation where the No. 1 ranking is going to be at stake. It’s got a lot of ramifications for where the fallout is in the future for those guys,” John McEnroe said. “If Rafa were to win this, he’d be closer to Roger. If Djokovic were to win, he’d be closer to Rafa. If Roger would win it at 37, he would set a new standard, add to his record of slams. This is a pretty exciting tournament for us.”
The competitive engine still roars as Federer showed surging to his 20th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January, but the track is tough in New York.
If the seeds hold true to form, Federer would need to beat volatile 30th seed Nick Kyrgios in the third round just to get a potential quarterfinal against Djokovic, who swept Federer in the Cincinnati final last Sunday.
Then, Marin Cilic, who beat Federer en route to the 2014 US Open title and edged Djokovic in the Queen’s Club final in June, could be awaiting the winner in the semifinals.
By his standards, Federer’s return game was atrocious in his Cincinnati loss to Djokovic that featured several shanks.
The second-ranked Swiss attributes that struggle to lightning-quick court conditions in the Queen city, while Queens is playing a touch slower.
Federer, who was 7-0 in Cincinnati finals before bowing to Djokovic, said US Open court conditions are more favorable to his brand of all-court shotmaking.
“I’m exactly where I want to be, and I still have enough days to get ready, to be honest,” Federer said. “I’m very pleased about my progress here. I’ve gotten used to the conditions here. It’s a bit slower, it’s easier to control, and that also is one part of Cincinnati that I think probably if you ask most players, like, How do you feel in Cincinnati, a lot of guys will always say it’s not easy to play there.
“The ball flies. Especially this year the ball was extremely bouncy. So it was just hard to control the balls at all times. And I think that also didn’t help the feeling.”
“So I think coming to New York, I think you get a better feel,” Federer said. “The balls are easier to control. The surface is a touch slower. So I think in overall theme maybe we will see better tennis here in New York.”
Will the Federer express get back on track in New York?
It’s not like the wheels have fallen off Federer’s game. He’s advanced to six finals in eight tournaments starts this season, including contesting finals in four of five hard-court events: the Australian Open, Rotterdam, Indian Wells and Cincinnati.
Despite the fact he hadn’t played a hard-court event in five months, and was struggling to find his timing, Federer still reached the Cincinnati championship match.
Of course, neither Nadal nor Djokovic were at their best—or even present—at some of those events. And both men will be highly motivated to close the gap on Federer.
“Obviously Roger got a tough draw overall, in addition to having to play Novak in the quarters. It’s not that easy for him necessarily to get there,” ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said. “A lot of people are saying Djokovic is the favorite.
“I actually still think Nadal is the favorite, and he’s my pick to win it. I think he played well in Canada. He’s fresh coming in. I think he was smart to miss Cincinnati. Certainly one of the matches of the year was the semifinal loss in Wimbledon to Novak. But I think a hard court is a better surface for Rafa… and I think Rafa is going to be incredibly motivated to win it because he sees that he can run down Roger in overall majors, not to mention the fact he wants to keep Djokovic at bay. Those three guys are the clear favorites.”
The biggest question confronting Federer isn’t whether he can reach his eighth US Open final.
The biggest question Federer faces is: Can he potentially defeat Djokovic and Nadal —the two guys chasing him in the all-time Grand Slam race—to do it?
“I think Roger has looked a little bit shaky in Cincinnati, although a shaky Roger still made to it final,” Patrick McEnroe said. “He’s got to try to catch fire. If he can catch fire in week number two, that’s when he becomes super dangerous.”
On the eve of his 18th US Open, Federer insists he’s right where he wants to be.
“I think not even close playing my absolute best in Cincinnati and still making a finals is still a really good result, actually, if I take a step away,” Federer said. “The finals was not good. I was not happy with how I played, but I think there was some tiredness that led into that.
“And Novak was good, you know. So it was just a match, one you want to forget, no problem, but in the big scheme of things actually was a good tournament for me, get all the matches under the belt, get match-tough again so when I do show up here I actually feel I’m ready, and I am ready, and that’s what counts for me.”