September 14, 2009

The Stuff of Fairy Tales

Year in and year out it seems we get to this part of the tennis season and are left singing the same song. Like the Valiant Little Tailor, Roger Federer had swatted away one opponent after another in his effort to accomplish what few others could. He may be credited with being the king of the All England Club, but us locals knew that it was really New York that was Roger's castle.

That is, until tonight.

It had been 2,200 days since the current #1 has lost at Flushing Meadows -- in 2003 Argentine David Nalbandian eliminated Fed in the round of sixteen. This year one of Nalbandian's young countrymen became the unlikely hero that would end Roger's quest for a sixteenth Major title.

His task would be a formidable one -- five different opponents, each champions in their own right, had taken their swipe at Roger and the best any of them could do was to take a set off him. Let's take a look back.

2004: Lleyton Hewitt (6-0, 7-6(3), 6-0)

The Australian was ranked fifth in the world at that point, and was coming off one of his most prolific years. He'd won titles in Sydney, Rotterdam, Washington and Long Island and hadn't dropped a set on the way to his third Slam final -- he'd won both of his other attempts.

Roger, for his part, had struggled a bit more. He'd dropped a set in the second round to Marcos Baghdatis and was pushed to the limit by Andre Agassi in the quarters. But he'd already won two Majors that year -- Australia and his second Wimbledon -- as well as six other titles.

In his first U.S. Open final, Roger began to show signs of the greatness he would only develop further as time progressed. He bageled Lleyton in the first set, got pushed to a tiebreak in the second, but retorted with another 6-0 immediately after. The entire match took 109 minutes, an impressive start to what would become an even more impressive run.

2005: Andre Agassi (6-3, 2-6, 7-6(1), 6-1)

The next year Roger faced heavy crowd favorite Agassi, who was thirty-five at the time and, though we didn't know it yet, a year from retirement. Ranked seventh in the world, the Nevada native had spent ages on the court already that fortnight -- more than fourteen and a half hours, with his last three matches each taking the full five sets to decide.

Roger, on the other hand, had just reiterated his win over Lleyton in the semis and came to the finals only having dropped two tight sets. Against Agassi, he surprisingly succumbed a bit, losing serve twice in the second before rallying in the third set tiebreak. He finished off the last Grand Slam winner, 6-1 in the fourth to claim his sixth Major crown.

2006: Andy Roddick (6-2, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1)

In 2006 Andy Roddick was not having his best run. The former #1 had seen his ranking drop to the lowest it had been in four years. He'd only won a single title in Cincinnati, his least productive year since turning pro. But somehow in New York he seemed to regain his composure, surviving a scare from then-unknown Fernando Verdasco and battling past a persistent Mikhail Youzhny to reach his fourth Major final.

Unfortunately he was meeting the man who'd denied him his two previous attempts at his first Wimbledon title. By this time, we all knew Federer was a force unlike many others. At twenty-five he'd already racked up forty titles -- eight big ones. In New York that year he was nearly perfect, losing only one tiebreak at nine to James Blake, the newly instated best American tennis player.

He was similarly relentless against Roddick, firing off seventeen aces against the otherwise big server. He only ceded his game twice while breaking his opponent six times. Like with Agassi the year before, Federer came back after losing the second set and steamrolled over his opponent in the fourth, winning at 6-1.

2007: Novak Djokovic (7-6(4), 7-6(2), 6-4)

I admit I'd forgotten that Nole had made the finals at the Open during his break-out year. The Serb burst on the scene winning four titles before coming to New York and entertained a legion of fans with his impressions of Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova. He'd climbed to a #3 ranking, and despite some rough rounds had made it to his first championship match at a Slam.

Surprisingly, Roger faced the tougher draw that year, meeting #5 Roddick in the quarters and #4 Nikolay Davydenko in the semis. Even still he'd again only dropped one set -- to an upstart American named John Isner in the third round. In the final, Novak stayed close to start, forcing two tiebreaks, both of which he lost. But again Roger doubled his opponents on aces and scored the critical break point in the third set to secure his fourth straight title in New York.

2008: Andy Murray (6-2, 7-5, 6-2)

Last year was a whole different story. Though I began 2008 with the fear that Roger was just about to roll to his record fifteenth Grand Slam, thus dethroning my dear Pete Sampras, suddenly I found myself wondering if Federer would even win a title at all. He'd fallen to eventual winner Djokovic, who was out for revenge at the Australian Open, and suffered two brutal losses to Rafael Nadal at the French and Wimbledon finals. He lost his #1 ranking and was beaten by players like James Blake, Ivo Karlovic and Gilles Simon.

Murray on the other hand was riding a wave of momentum that culminated in a stunning victory over Nadal in the semifinals. Pundits were beginning to predict he might win his very first Major in the rain-delayed Monday night match.

Somehow, though, that didn't happen. As he usually does, Roger pulled out his best magic in the final and in less than two hours had won this match too, his thirteenth major, and put himself back on course for what turned out to be a pretty great 2009.

Juan Martin Del Potro (6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 6-7, 2-6!)

This year Roger faced the latest prince trying to slay the giant. Or, more accurately, the latest giant trying to slay the prince. After a rough start Roger had reached a slew of milestones in 2009, acheiving a career Grand Slam, surpassing Pete Sampras's Major record, becoming a father. When he made it to the finals in New York, he was the clear favorite.

But Juan Martin -- who hadn't won a single one of their previous six matches -- played the tournament of his life, beating Rafa in the semis without losing serve once. Tonight he rebounded from almost going two breaks down in the first set to take the second in a tiebreak. He even grabbed an early lead in the third, getting so far under Federer's skin that Roger cursed at the chair umpire during a change over.

Amazingly, though, the big man regrouped after again giving up a break lead in the fourth to force the first five-set U.S. Open final since 1999, and it was the gangly Argentine who took the first break of the deciding set. After another half hour of play DelPo found himself with a handful of championship points -- the third of which he converted to win his first Grand Slam trophy at the ripe old age of twenty.

It was a startling outcome, like Shrek felling the dragon -- albeit a much more attractive Shrek and a very talented and deserving dragon. Juan Martin had played spectacular tennis for most of the summer, but looked exhausted in his defeat by Andy Murray in Montreal, causing most commentators to speculate over his fitness here. But he proved to be not only more resilient than his detractors posited, but more mature than his age suggested. With so many opportunities for him to fold and go quietly into the night, Juan Martin Del Potro ended the five-year reign of Roger Federer in New York in such spectacular fashion that only a Major's finale deserves.

This year's U.S. Open will be remembered for many things -- good, bad and ugly -- but hopefully for most, it will be remembered for its ability to make dreams come true for the biggest underdog.

So dust of your racquets, people! Next year, it could be you!

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