Roger Federer has been a dominant force at the U.S. Open since he won his first title there six years ago, losing only once since 2003.
That loss came at the hands of the young Argentine giant, Juan Martin Del Potro in 2009, after a hard fought epic battle.
But Federer’s performance that year was still considered exemplary throughout—a straight sets victory over Novak Djokovic stands out.
When this year’s Open gets underway at the end of August, the Swiss will banish all thoughts of a fairly dismal season (by his standards), since winning his 16th Slam in Australia, and come out all guns blazing in the vast Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Unlike most players, who usually transfer mediocre performances at the Masters level and below, to the majors, Federer has a habit of “finding his game” when he steps out onto the Grand Slam stage.
However, this will become increasingly difficult as the new generation of players become more confident against him.
Federer’s recent losses against opponents he has previously dominated has greatly diminished his intimidating court presence.
The most high-profile defeats have come against two of the biggest hitters on the tour: Robin Soderling at the French Open and Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon, both denying Federer title defenses at these majors.
Losses at Masters and regular events to players like Marcos Baghdatis and Lleyton Hewitt, have further put a dent in Federer’s armory.
His three main rivals: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray, have beaten Federer a combined 25 five times, but none of those wins have come at Flushing Meadows so far.
Djokovic came close in 2007, having held set points in the first two sets, but nerves were his undoing in that match. He exorcised those demons a year later by beating Federer in the semis of the Australian Open in straight sets and on a similar surface.
He has the resources and confidence to do it again on the faster hard blue courts of this year’s final Grand Slam.
Djokovic has further proved he is capable of this feat by defeating Federer in 2009 at the indoor tournament in the latter’s hometown of Basel—revenge for his second U.S. Open loss to the Swiss in 2009.
Nadal was also victorious over Federer in Melbourne, and has amply proved his amazing adaptability to different surfaces and his dominance over his premier rival at the top level.
And Murray, still looking for that elusive major, is fully capable of transferring his impressive Masters event record over his Swiss rival to his favorite Slam in New York. He has played Federer in one final at that major in 2008.
But what about the new crop of players mentioned earlier?
There are several who are capable of taking out Federer under the blistering sun and bright lights of this most glamorous of Majors.
Besides the emerging young guns, Del Potro, Robin Soderling, and Tomas Berdych (the ball punishers), and the experienced players in the top four, others can also do damage with good, solid tennis.
Here now is an analysis of what they must accomplish to follow in the footsteps of Federer’s Slam conquerors.
Consistency is the key.
Consistency in extended baseline rallies and on serve.
Players like Sam Querrey and Marin Cilic have the size to hit with tremendous pace from the back court, like the three mentioned above, and they both have explosive serves with which to win easy points.
It is a matter of believing in their abilities and minimizing mistakes.
Federer has shown over time that when pressured for an extended period during the match, the chances of beating him increase.
Confidence cannot be overemphasized.
When Soderling defeated Nadal at the French Open in 2008, he said afterwards that he imagined he was sparring on the practice court, not trading blows with arguably the greatest warrior the tennis world has ever seen.
And this approach worked.
The Swede had this calm air about him, and he basically let his ferocious game take its course. He must have had that mindset when he landed the second big scalp of his career against Federer at the same event a year later.
A player looking to carry confidence gained from a recent ATP event triumph, into the U.S. Open, is comeback kid, David Nalbandian. He has been sidelined with hip surgery and various injuries since May of 2009, and his return this year was sporadic at best.
Nalbandian, who won the tournament in Washington recently, has beaten Federer at the U.S. Open in 2003, during the latter’s breakthrough year, when he captured his first Wimbledon title.
He has also won against his rival at the Australian Open the year before, and lost once to him at the same event in 2004.
The revitalized Argentine will be looking to gain from his current momentum when he plays in his first Slam since January of 2009.
He certainly has the skills: the accuracy of his groundstrokes has few rivals, and the ability to move his opponent around the court with sharp angles recalls Andy Murray.
Renewed self-belief may pay dividends.
Capitalizing on Federer’s weaknesses is the last strategy his opponents should implement.
The first is the backhand.
It is most often the weakest shot of the Swiss, except when his opponent approaches to it on his way to the net. Federer has the ability to pass with ease from that wing, as Nadal, recalling the fourth set tie-breaker at the 2008 Wimbledon, would confirm!
Federer’s backhand is a beautiful stroke, but the truth is that under constant heavy barrage it does sometimes break down.
Murray is a master of targeting such weaknesses and has done so against Federer, albeit not yet at the Slam events.
However, this tactic would have been quite a challenge for him at the Australian Open this year, because Federer’s backhand was humming along quite nicely there.
It used be that very tall players were considered poor movers on court.
Del Potro put to rest this notion with his fluid movement against Federer in New York, and the way he was comfortably running around his backhand to hit explosive inside-out forehands to Federer’s weaker wing.
Others of similar height, like Cilic and Querrey, would have taken note of how the Argentine was able to use his long limbs to track down difficult balls and run around one wing to set up another.
They have similar games to Del Potro, and they now just need to confidently let their games flow from their racquets.
Federer’s second weakness is his impatience.
As an aggressive, fast-paced player, he likes to end points as quickly as possible, and tends to get flustered when more balls come back than he originally envisioned.
An opponent who can make him play extra shots will double his chances of success.
A clean ball striker like Marcos Baghdatis, on a similar comeback trail to Nalbandian, can extend Federer in long demanding rallies and force an unplanned change of tactics from the Swiss.
He has played him in a Slam final, taking a set, and beat him for the first time at the Masters event in Indian Wells this year.
Federer, who turned 29 on Sunday, has won a record 16 Grand Slams and is among the few to land all four majors in his career.
It is time for the new and the recently dominant to shine on the ultimate stage.
Michael Bernstein is president of Championship Tennis Tours. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.tennistours.com.
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