Canadian teenager Félix Auger-Aliassime leaves for Dubai on Saturday.
What follows will be the start of an eye-opening experience as the 17-year-old trains with Roger Federer for two weeks.
“We’re communicatingwith his coach. Not sure which day he arrives but it will be for two weeks, from (December) 5 to 20. I’ll mostly train with him; no guarantee on what I will do, but it’s becoming clearer,” Auger-Aliassime said in a conference call with the media Wednesday afternoon.
He said it was a great chance to learn from the best.
“You will always motivate yourself by comparing yourself to the best in the world, he said. “It’s a great opportunity, so you have to take advantage of it. But mostly I’ll be trying to prepare myself the best way possible for the 2018 season.”
Auger-Aliassime said he felt the same way as “anyone who follows tennis” about the 19-time Grand Slam champion.
“I admire everything he does on court, off court, the person he is. And my coaches will be there so we can observe more closely what he does well, why he plays at such a high level,” he said. “I don’t know much about him, but I can’t wait to get there, and I can’t wait to train two weeks with him.”
The Canadian, who is 16 months younger than his great friend and frequent doubles partner Denis Shapovalov, has been (somewhat mercifully) improving out of the spotlight a little bit because of what Shapovalov accomplished this summer.
Stable team, steady improvement
But with the exception of the two months he missed during the summer with a wrist injury, Auger-Aliassime made impressive, steady progress up the rankings in his first year out of the juniors.
To his longtime coach Guillaume Marx, with whom he’s been working at the National Training Centre in Montreal for several years, an additional coach has been added.
With Frédéric Fontang, an experienced coach who worked with Auger-Aliassime’s countryman Vasek Pospisil for for years, there is another pair of eyes, another tennis mind to contribute fresh insight.
“Everyone is working great together. It’s been great, and really a stable environment, so that’s what I’m looking for,” Auger-Aliassime said.
“There are a few things I have to work on physically, because I’ve been playing a lot the last part of the year. I have to rebuild a good physical base – with my stamina, my upper body, lower body, explosiveness,” he added. “As well, just keep working on my technique, because I’m still young.
“I want to be more precise in what I’m doing. That will help me make a big step in the rankings, if I can stabilize some things to perfection.”
Major rankings rise in 2017
At the beginning of the season, Auger-Aliassime’s ATP Tour ranking stood at No. 614.
He’s currently at No. 162, just off a career high of No. 153 reached last month.
And he has goals for 2018.
“I’m already playing the qualifying in Australia, so the goal is to qualify for a Grand Slam. Obviously I’d like to qualify for all of them, but let’s start with one,” Auger-Aliassime said. “Then, to be main draw at the US Open, and finish the year in the top 100. It’s an ambitious but quite realistic goal for me. If I put the right things in place, it’s accessible.”
The quick ascent to stardom by his friend Shapovalov is motivating, but not something he looks to as some sort of benchmark.
“We’re very competitive, both of us. Of course you look at it, you want to perform as he did. But you always have to remind yourself that each has their own path. You look at (Milos) Raonic’s path, and those of others who got to the top. They’re all different.
“At the end of the day I’m happy with the work I did this year, and will set my goals with my coaches, but try not to compare myself too much,” he said.
Keeping it simple
Auger-Aliassime said he’s not at a point where he’s looking to add any sponsors, take advantage financially of the increased attention he received in 2017.
He has been with Nike since the beginning of the year after wearing clothes from his racket sponsor, Babolat, before that.
And, unlike some players who have changed racket sponsors as their pro careers blossomed, he just renewed with Babolat. “I’m in a stable situation with my sponsors, and at the moment I’m not looking to associate myself with more,” he said. “We’ll see what kind of year I have in 2018, and maybe there will be more signings at the end of the season.”
After the Federer training camp, Auger-Aliassime’s first scheduled tournament is a Challenger event in Playford, Australia the first week of January.
He’ll then move on to Melbourne, where he’ll attempt to qualify for the first Grand Slam main draw of his young career.
Borfiga was speaking at a press conference to wrap up the season in Canadian tennis at the national training centre in Montreal Thursday.
“I also think he likes Félix and his personality. He wants to give back some of what tennis has given to him. He wants to help Félix… maybe avoid some of the traps that would be good to avoid at his age.”
Win-win for Federer
The real reason like is more that Federer likes to scout out his future rivals from a young age. And he also appreciates the young, fresh legs as he pushes himself during his off-season training blocks.
He’ll often go two-on-one, with the two youngsters on the other side.
When Alexander Zverev, currently the No. 3 player in the world, was Auger-Aliassime’s age, he practiced some with Federer.
That included a couple of session at Indian Wells that year.
It’s a great opportunity for Auger-Aliassime, who made the jump to the Challenger level this season and had some great results, and some not-so-great ones.
He ran into the experienced Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round of qualifying at his first-ever Grand Slam, the US Open. That came just a year after he won the junior event in 2016, which is a jump most up-and-comers don’t make so quickly.
He will try again at the Australian Open to reach his first main draw.
Much murmuring ensued. One media outlet, El Español, even originally reported (the current version of the story on its website does not allude to it) that Nadal had made a special request for a late start, in order to give his ailing knee the maximum amount of time to heal up before the event began.
Or was it Federer who asked to play earlier? A Sunday start would give him an extra day of rest between the round-robin portion and the semis.
Hmmm… Whichever theory you believed probably depended on whom you supported.
Federer was correct. But a communications person for the ATP says there were no special favors, that it was merely an error on the website.
Not at all true. There was no last minute switch due to any player request. The misinformation on website was down to human error.
An exhibition before 14,000 adoring compatriots is not a bad place to start, when you’re looking to define the state of a balky hip after four months off court,
And so, even though Andy Murray lost in a match tiebreak to the visiting Roger Federer Tuesday in Glasgow, it was a win-win.
Murray’s charities got a healthy boost to their bottom line. And the Scot was able to put it out there against one of the best.
He was rather pleased with how his form held up.
“It was a bit better than expected. I was pretty nervous before and I didn’t know exactly how I was going to feel. But I did okay,” Murray said on court after the match. “The hip felt pretty good – not perfect yet – but it’s going in the right direction. I’ve got eight more weeks until the first tournament of the year, hopefully I’ll be ready to go by then.”
Careful start against Federer
Murray began a little gingerly, letting a few potentially reachable shots go by in the early going. But by the end he was chasing down whatever he could.
As ornery and disheveled as Murray can sometimes look on court at the best of times, it was hard to discern a difference with the naked eye, in terms of whether or not anything was bothering him.
And, of course, it’s hard to tell how much is the body, and how much is simply the lack of matches since Wimbledon.
There’s little doubt Federer took his foot off the gas pedal a little after winning the first set. It was an exhibition, and Federer always knows exactly what city he’s in even if the hotel suites start to look astoundingly alike after awhile.
Before the exhibition (Murray and brother Jamie also came out to play doubles after the singles), Murray seemed a little more hesitant on the current state of things.
Murray not rushing it this time
He said that, in retrospect, doing everything he could to try to be fit for the US Open in late August was probably a bad call.
“I hope I’m there, things have been going pretty well so far in the rehab,” Murray told reporters in Glasgow, as reported in the Daily Mail, about starting the season as planned in Brisbane. “But you just never know … I’ve been training for a few weeks now, some days I’ve felt great, some days not so good but I’m getting there and I’ll come back when I’m ready and 100 per cent fit.”
Murray said that over the last 10 days, he had upped his on-court time to 1 1/2 – 2 hours a day – most days. But it was not at full intensity. He said he also is taking advantage of the unwanted down time to “work on a few technical things”.
The Scot’s hip may be the most-watched body part in British sport at the moment. It’s impressive that he’s been able to keep a very low profile in recent months. Which shows that if there’s a will, there often is a way.
Europort streamed a 360 version on its Facebook page.
The technology isn’t what it soon will be, but it was a neat initiative nonetheless.
Federer was in the crowd with wife Mirka, and looked pretty emotional. The two are a month apart in age. Along with them was another Swiss player of their vintage, Michael Lammer, who retired two years ago at age 33 and was Chiudinelli’s doubles partner for most of his junior career.
It’s always amazing to process how random tennis stardom is. To have two young players from the city of Basel, population (then and now) less than 170,000, make the big time on the ATP Tour is against all odds.
In Chiudinelli’s case, even longer odds.
He played just half a dozen junior events above a Grade 2, and never made the main draw of a junior Slam.
And yet, he reached a career high in singles of No. 52 in 2010. But it’s been a rough go, health-wise, since then. The wraps on his knees seem surgically glued on.
Chiudinelli won one title, in doubles, on the ATP Tour, in Gstaad with Lammer in 2009. And he got close to another with Federer. They reached the Halle final in 2014 – only to lose 12-10 in the match tiebreak. It was one of only three times they played doubles together in their careers, which is kind of surprising.
That Gstaad event was the Swiss class of 1981-82’s reunion back in 2009.
You would think Federer might have played doubles with him in his career finale in their town. But it wasn’t to be. Chiudinelli did get a wild card with another Swiss player, Luca Margeroli and will play his first round Wednesday.
Despite his fairly ordinary career, Chiudinelli has always been a popular player in Switzerland.
And you can only imagine how much patience he has had to have the last 15 years or so.
How many people sucked up to him because he was one of Federer’s nearest and dearest friends? How many people tried to get to Federer through him?
That was actually the event’s first official announcement, all the way back in June. And it’s a major coup with no less than three ATP Tour events – Brisbane, Doha and the Maharashtra Open in Pune, India (formerly the Chennai tournament) no doubt vying for Federer’s $ervices.
Joining Federer on Team Switzerland will be Belinda Bencic, the 20-year-old who has had injury issues of her own. So this time, it will be her comeback.
Bencic has won just one match all year on the WTA Tour. And she was sidelinedwith a wrist injury from early May, until her return at an ITF event last week.
Federer did have an epic – a 7-6 (1) 6-7 (4) 7-6 (4) loss to his occasional practice partner Alexander Zverev.
But Switzerland didn’t actually win; France (Richard Gasquet and Kristina Mladenovic) defeated them in the round-robin portion and won the whole thing.
France isn’t among the eight teams for 2018. Neither are Great Britain, the Czech Republic or Spain – all of which took part in 2017.
Joining Federer and Bencic will be Zverev and Angelique Kerber for Team Germany.
Zverev played with Andrea Petkovic last year; this will be Kerber’s first appearance in Australia.
As well, Canadians Vasek Pospisil and Genie Bouchard will team up. Bouchard played with countryman Milos Raonic back in early 2014 – shortly before Bouchard’s big breakout result at the Australian Open.
Bouchard teamed up with Pospisil the following year in 2015. She defeated Serena Wiliams there, and then reached the Australian Open quarterfinals a few weeks later.
Russia’s Karen Khachanov will team up with Svetlana Kuznetsova.
For Australia, Thanasi Kokkinakis and Daria Gavrilova will represent.
David Goffin and Elise Mertens will play for Belgium
For the USA, Jack Sock and Coco Vandeweghe will fly the flag.
And, last but not least, Naomi Osaka and Yuichi Sugita of Japan fill out the field.
Switzerland, USA, Russia and Japan will be in Group B. Canada, Germany, Australia and Belgium will be in Group A, for round-robin purposes. They’ve already made the schedule, so fans can pick and choose what matchups they want to see well in advance.
Canada plays during the Sunday, Wednesday and Friday day sessions. Federer will play Saturday (vs. Japan), Tuesday (vs. Russia) and Thursday (vs. the USA) evenings.
That means Nick Kyrgios, the top Aussie, won’t be there.
But it’s a pretty interesting field nonetheless, with plenty of high-profile players on both sides.
The format is two singles, and then mixed doubles. Last year, they used the “Fast Four” format for the mixed.
Pretty much everything Roger Federer touches turns to gold.
So why anyone would have any doubt that the first edition of the Laver Cup would be anything but a smash?
It was, on every level, a huge success. Sellout crowds, high-quality tennis, plenty of drama and emotion, a bulletproof format … and Roger and Rafa.
It was a such a perfect storm that even the absence of many top players turned out to be a plus.
Team World (Team America, really) ended up a young squad of millennials – both real and throwback. They decided to have their own private party in front of 14,000 people inside the O2 Arena, and millions more around the world.
“They had the better chants and the better moves, but in the end, Team Europe got it done,” said Laver Cup maestro Roger Federer, who pretty much notices everything and has a uniquely passive-aggressive way of letting you know.
Team World wins the “Team Fun” award
Outmatched on the court for the most part, Team World won the fun contest
The contrast between Team World and Team Europe couldn’t have been more stark.
Obviously most of the older players were on Team Europe. At times during the weekend you almost got the sense they were exchanging stock tips while Team World recreated The Floor is Lava, this summer’s trending challenge on YouTube.
Just keeping track of Frances Tiafoe’s ever-changing head gear was a trending challenge in itself. Veterans John Isner and Sam Querrey were young again. And green rookie Denis Shapovalov got more corrupted by the day. He may never be the same.
But by the very end, the last 20 minutes of the Roger Federer match, Team World stepped it up – led by an emotional and demonstrative Rafael Nadal.
The “black” court turned out to play dark gray on television. And it immediately became a visual that will always be associated exclusively with the Laver Cup.
The ball stood out on the stark backdrop for television viewers. But the blue and red lighting around the court and in the stands prevented it from being too drab.
As well, the stark white of the high-end sponsors also stood out. Don’t think that wasn’t a huge factor as well.
They really did think of everything. One complaint fans often have when watching tennis on television is that the radar gun that measures the serves is hard to find, and often hard to see. In this setup, the numbers were big and bright and always easy to find.
The stage where the rest of the teammates cheered was also perfectly set up. The fans could access both teams during changeovers (and even during the matches) for autographs. But if the players wanted to leave the court – especially the losers – they could do so in a straight line towards the locker room. If they didn’t want to deal with the autograph seekers, they didn’t have to.
At the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore and to a large extent at the ATP Tour Finals in London, the fans are often in the dark as the court is lit up. It makes for a bit of an isolated atmosphere although it does hide any empty seats. At the Laver Cup, the stands were lit in a way that fit in perfectly with the court. But it also allowed you to see the fans.
It was pitch-perfect. It almost didn’t even look real.
Next-Gen graphics, camera angles
A company based in Sydney, Australia and Los Angeles called Girraphic was the mastermind behind the graphics, which were unlike most of what you see all season long.
They were spectacular, especially the ones superimposed on the net.
Great variety of camera angles
The camera angles were also varied. The baseline cam (affectionately referred to as the “butt cam” because they often close in on the derrière of the player returning serve) has been used before. But rarely this often.
They also had an improved version of the net cam; Bob Feller, the legendary ESPN tennis producer, says, “stay tuned”.
It's a great look… Not the first time it's been used but better camera. Stay tuned ..
Federer annihilated it at one stage, which was amusing. They had a fish-eye lens at the net that showed the entire court in a new way. There were slow-motion replays of emotional moments and Team Fun routines. It was frantic, but it didn’t feel that way.
Having the coaches on court – and the players playing coaches as well – made for far more interesting cutaways than you’ll see at a regular tournament. There, the endless go-tos are countless shots of Mirka Federer biting her lip, or Jelena Djokovic looking like she might lose her stuff at any moment, get old quickly.
They had to dim the microphones at times, given some of the cussing by Team World. (There were no such issues for Team Europe; captain Bjorn Borg said more during his trophy ceremony speech than he said on court for three days).
Trying too hard
For whatever reason, the braintrust behind the Laver Cup decided that the word “exhibition” was a bad word.
It was clear that a talking point went out to everyone to emphasize that it wasn’t an exhibition. That it didn’t feel like an exhibition. And that it meant something to these guys. They were devoted in their dedication to bringing home the Laver cup to their (country? continent? world section?). And that it meant the world to them.
The thing is, why is the word “exhibition” by definition a bad word?
That’s exactly what this was. Perhaps out of this, a new category somewhere between tournament and exhibition called “special event” may be created.
But they tried so hard. Way too hard.
It’s worth remembering that every single person trying to convince you the Laver Cup “wasn’t an exhibition” had a financial stake in the event. The players received a ton of money up front (and an additional $250,000 each for winning). Federer’s management company, Team 8, for which he is the biggest earner, made a major investment.
Everyone from the chair umpire to the all-star cast of commentators and analysts took home a nice additional paycheque for their participation. It was to the point where the commentators were making excuses for some salty language on Team World’s side with platitudes like “It just absolutely shows how much these guys want to win for Europe and the world.”
Actually, it just showed that they use profanity. As many of us do on a tennis court. As they do during the regular Tour events as well. But they’re not used to being amongst a gaggle of buddies on a tennis court with the microphones on.
Giving the players (and captain) such a pass would only happen in an exhibition. In many ways, the vibe on that level was much as it was for that first, money-heavy season of IPTL. Which was, of course, much derided as “merely an exhibition.”
Format on point
The very nature of the team format was going to make for great competition.
In a standard exhibition, where two top players fly in and out of a city for a one-nighter, they’re playing for themselves and the crowd.
Regardless of the circumstances, if you play against two of the greatest of all time, you’re going to go all out. And if you are one of the greatest of all time, you didn’t get there by not taking it seriously every time you step on the court.
The place was packed. Everyone had fun. Everyone came out a winner. The fans loved it. Everyone made lots of money.
There is no downside, and little need to preach semantics.
The stated intention to honour the champions of the past in naming the event after Rod Laver, and having Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe as captains (neatly dovetailing with the opening of the movie based on their rivalry) put a nice, sincere veneer on what is very much a money-making enterprise.
The well-heeled crowd in Prague was enthusiastic but extremely civilized. It was only in the waning moments that they began to do those things the diehard fans hate, like cheering for missed first serves.
The crowd in Chicago will be quite different.
The makeup of “Team World” also will be quite different.
What a perfect world it would be if this year’s cast were playing “at home” in Chicago. Their act would play even better. And imagine, conversely, that players such as Nishikori, Murray, Raonic, Anderson and del Potro had been on “Team World” instead of Shapovalov, Kyrgios, Tiafoe, Isner and Sock.
Team Fun probably a one-off
The atmosphere would have been completely different – not nearly as lively. And John McEnroe, as captain, wouldn’t have had nearly the same positive impact. That’s going to be impossible to recreate next year.
What if, next year, Federer and Nadal aren’t blessed with the same health and good form they’ve enjoyed this year, their renaissance year? It’s inarguable that these two are definitely on a year-to-year basis, at this stage.
Without them, it’s not the same event. It’s arguably barely a top-flight event, despite the illustrious resumés of the other player options. In the special-event solar system, star power counts exponentially.
It’s also worth noting here that Djokovic, Murray and Nishikori had not committed to the Laver Cup before their injury woes. Will that change now that they’ve seen it work so amazingly well? It might. It might not.
Federer and Nadal transcend borders. The others, not nearly to the same extent. You know Federer is committed as long as he’s healthy, given his business ties. Countryman Stan Wawrinka likely would do him a solid. But did Nadal just do a one-off favour for his frenemy? We’ll find out.
They should also consider shortening the time between matches. It could run a half hour or more. We realize the need to sell merchandise and adult beverages. But with only one match to talk about, the commentators had a tough time filling. And it’s easy to lose your audience these days.
Overtly or not, this event has been positioned as a potential alternative format to the century-old Davis Cup competition. That’s partly because of the weekend team format. And it’s also because of the fact that Nadal and Federer played it while skipping representing their country this year.
No doubt there are plenty of secret board meetings over at ITF headquarters. And the drama is made even more real by the fact that the USTA and Tennis Australia – two federations that run Grand Slam tournaments under the ITF umbrella – are involved in a major way. At the very least, the huge money the players were paid just to show up dwarfs the relative pittance they earn for representing their country – with far fewer weeks’ commitment.
But the effects go beyond that, right to the heart of the Tour that made all these players rich and famous.
There were two 250-level ATP Tour events the week of the Laver Cup – Metz and St. Petersburg, Russia. There are two 250-level events in faraway China this week that brush up against the end of the event, Shenzhen and Chengdu.
Stars needed at the 250s
It’s no secret that the 250-level tournaments are struggling to varying degrees. The only way they can make a good go of it is if they can attract a big name to play in the event. That draws the fans; more crucially, it also draws corporate sponsorship.
Metz and St. Petersburg were out of luck. (There was a story reporting that Djokovic had committed to the St. Petersburg tournament before he shut down his season). Tomas Berdych, who would have been the No. 3 seed in Shenzhen, pulled out before the event began. (Why he even entered it, knowing as far back as February when he was doing Laver Cup promotion in Prague with Federer that he’d likely play, is a question for him).
Tiafoe also withdrew from Shenzhen. He’s a crowd-pleaser. But it also cost him a chance to earn some ranking points which, at this stage of his career, he still needs. Denis Shapovalov had committed to a big Challenger in France this week. He only played on the Laver Cup’s opening day; he pulled out of Orléans that very day. That’s late in the game.
Tired, jet-lagged top seeds
Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, the No. 1 seeds in Shenzhen and Chengdu, respectively, remain on board so far. But they’ll arrive in Asia very late, after a very long trip. And they’ve both signed on for doubles, as well.
They’ll be jet-lagged – and perhaps even a little hungover from the post-victory celebrations. They won’t have given themselves the best chance to win. That does them a disservice. And it also hurts the tournaments that no doubt paid them handsome appearance fees, as top-10 players, to show up.
And who knows if any other Laver Cup participants might have considered playing?
In the end, the Laver Cup seems to be here to stay. As well it should; it was all kinds of fun and, no doubt, quite profitable for all.
It’s only an exhibition. But it combines the best elements of everything tennis has to offer right now. It needs to stay.
What remains to be worked out is how it best can fit into the overall tennis landscape. Because it needs to fit. The alphabet soup of competing tennis factions all need to figure out a way to make that happen.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal weren’t really looking forward to playing doubles together.
That much was obvious after they pulled out a narrow victory over Sam Querrey and Jack Sock Saturday.
They looked as relieved as they were happy. From their lofty perch in tennis history, they had more to lose than to gain.
And after Roger Federer pulled off the comeback win over Nick Kyrgios Sunday that decided the Laver Cup in Team Europe’s favor, they both alluded to it.
“I was ready to go. I had to be. That’s what a team member does. We knew it could change very quickly on Sunday. I was looking at getting ready for maybe a doubles at the very end here. So I’m very pleased and relieved that we got it done,” Federer said.
Nadal’s sentiments were similar.
“Of course if the captain want me there, I was ready – I didn’t want to play, but I was ready,” Nadal said. “But thanks to Roger, and the rest of the team, that we avoided that very tough situation.”
The idea of Federer and Nadal playing doubles together is a subject that comes up every so often in the media. But it had not come up between them for many years.
The idea was better than the actual reality. Although for nearly everyone who saw it, the idea was more than enough.
Seeing two of the greatest players of all time interacting for an extended period as the fans of both rarely see them do superseded any of the tennis actually played.
“It kind of felt like going into the Laver Cup, that’s what everyone wanted to see, and talked about as well. Now that it happened I think we’ll have some great footage, some great photos,” Federer said. “The two of us getting together. Our both fan groups having to get together. I think that’s slightly interesting as well.”
In reality, they don’t mesh that well. Their styles are so different. And it’s tough to play with someone you haven’t played with before – just look at the lack of chemistry between Nadal and Berdych.
There was no great debate on who would play which side, even though the tactical discussion made for a unique, if slightly stilted video. Federer said he plays the deuce side more often, Nadal said he plays both. Federer loved the idea of Nadal’s forehand on the ad side (even if their relatively weaker backhands are down the middle, which is the most crucial part of the doubles court.
But you could see that Federer made a lot of adjustments to acquiesce to what Nadal prefers on a doubles court. For example, he stayed back on both the first and second serves when Nadal was returning.
They knew it would please the fans, of course. Which is probably a big reason why they did it. But these are two of the best players in history. They have egos. They don’t want to combine forces on the court and … lose.
“We only ever practiced once together, back at the World Tour Finals. We don’t practice a lot. We don’t show stuff to each other a lot. We’ll always forever be rivals as long as we’re active. And after this we’ll be rivals again. But this was something really special,” Federer said. “It’s been an absolutely pleasure sharing the court with Rafa on the same side of the net. Knowing you can trust him in the big moments, seeing his decision making, seeing his thought process, was very interesting.
“I knew the people, maybe the ones who don’t follow tennis all the time, they would not understand if we lost. I understand that people only expect a win from us. But it’s so complicated. We’re playing indoors against great doubles players, against big servers,” Federer added.
That a pairing like Querrey and Sock – who have played together exactly once, back in 2012 in San Jose – would worry them to that extent is meaningful.
Different worlds, different people
The two are not besties. They come from different countries, different cultures. They hang out with their own people. And for much of their careers they have been fierce rivals.
They’ve known each other forever. They’re friendly, of course. Probably as friendly as anyone could be considering their professional circumstances. They have great respect for one another.
But there’s a reason they have not ever teamed up on Tour, despite plenty of opportunities.
Federer hasn’t played much doubles in recent years. But before that, the two tended to play for the very same reason, at the same tournaments. Most often it was when the ATP Tour changed surfaces – from indoors to Indian Wells, from the Wimbledon grass to the summer hard-court season in Canada. They had plenty of chances, but the never took advantage in all the years they’ve been out there.
NEW YORK – There was a meeting of the board of directors of Tennis Gods Inc. Wednesday evening.
It was a heavenly dinner gathering thousands of miles above the Arthur Ashe Stadium roof that thankfully was going to allow tennis to be played, on a rainy evening in Queen’s.
The board had a major dilemma on its hands. It had to determine the outcome of the US Open quarterfinal clash between Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro.
Said one esteemed board member, a bit of a traditionalist: “Awwww, we need to give all those fans who’ve been dying for at least one Federer-Nadal meeting in New York what they want. They’re not getting any younger. The clock is ticking.”
Said another, with a slightly wider view of things: “Of course. But isn’t it time we cut that very nice young man del Potro a break? We’ve been busting his chops for years with all these wrist surgeries and tough draws. I mean, don’t you all think we’d made him suffer enough?”
And so, the board was in the throes of a thorny dilemma. They were absolutely deadlocked between two good outcomes and unable to come to consensus.
Finally, after much deliberation, they decided not to decide. They would just stay out of it and let it play out. Whatever happened, happened.
Out-of-sorts Fed finally meets his match
What happened was something there had been clear signs of through the first 10 days of this US Open. But because Federer has had such an unreal first half of the season, no one wanted to pay attention.
The 36-year-old didn’t have it this entire US Open.
And he ran up against an inspired Argentine who, this night and through this tournament, very much did.
The 2009 US Open champion dispatched Federer 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4. It is del Potro, not Federer, who will meet Nadal in the semifinal on Friday.
Almost immediately, the price for tickets to that match tumbled on the secondary market.
Before the match, asked to describe his opponent, Federer said this: “Big serve, big forehand, big heart.”
After scraping through his fourth-round match against Dominic Thiem by the skin of his teeth, suffering from a virus and a stye in his eye and low on energy, del Potro came back two days later and played his best match of the tournament.
It was a champion’s move.
“I did everything well. I served so good, I hit my forehand as hard as I can. And I think we played a great match and I deserved to win in the end,” he said during his on-court interview.
A smiling Federer, who offered a hug, too, greeted him at the net after the win.
Not enough mind, body, or game
And it was a lucid Federer who broke it down afterwards.
“I think there’s definitely things, you know, that happened in the preparation and throughout the tournament that led to my performance today, because I can play much better but I can play worse, too. So it was one of those matches where if I ran into a good guy, I was going to lose, I felt,” Federer said. “I don’t want to say I was in negative mindset, but I knew going in that I’m not in a safe place. Might have depended too much on my opponent, and I don’t like that feeling. I had it, you know, throughout the tournament, and I just felt that way every single match I went into.”
Federer didn’t have that feeling either at the Australian Open or at Wimbledon, he said. He felt in control of his service games there. And that’s the base on which he can mount his efforts to break serve.
“That’s why, rightfully so, I’m out of this tournament. Because I wasn’t good enough, in my mind, in my body, and in my game to overcome these three pillars. If you’re missing all three, it’s going to be tough,” he said. “I’m okay with it. And I tried until the very end. And smashing certain stuff in the net that I normally wouldn’t, smashing forehand volleys into the back fence, I mean, that stuff sucked. You know, honestly, it was terrible.
“Juan Martin did well. He served well, had some big shots when he needed to. That was the part, that he did so much better tonight, and that’s why he deserves to win.”
Not the back – exactly
Federer said his back wasn’t bothering him Wednesday night. And he said that it had been getting better throughout the event – something of a requirement, he said. Because if playing the US Open was going to make it worse, he wouldn’t have played.
But the back woes certainly contributed to the overall malaise he felt the whole way through, from the shocking five-setter against young American Frances Tiafoe and on.
“Did it take away something from my overall performance? Maybe not on the night. But leading into the night, you know, I just think it slowed down my rhythm and whatever it was throughout the tournament. Because I was never really able to turn it on completely,” he said. “I played okay, you know, but I never felt like I got to the great level I can play at. But that’s okay.”
Del Potro forehand firing
Tactically, Federer wasn’t nearly as lucid as he might have been. Certainly he hit too many balls to del Potro’s forehand. And this, even though he felt he couldn’t even afford to get into the rallies with the Argentine because he wasn’t playing well enough to stay in them.
The point that perhaps painted the best picture of that came at 3-5 in the fourth set, when Federer was serving to stay in the match.
He approached the net with a forehand he just cracked. But del Potro guessed right – you wouldn’t think he’d anticipate an approach shot to his big weapon, but after so many on the night, he did. The Argentine reflexed the ball right off the bounce – at a zillion miles an hour, headed straight for Federer’s head.
It was all he could do to get out of the way. And of course it landed inside the court.
“Tonight I made my best backhands on the tournament in the important moments of the match, and it was in the set point of the third set, and then to break his serve in the fourth, and I hit my best backhand on the tournament tonight, which is a good signal for the future,” del Potro said.
Delpo backhand = underrated
Doesn't miss it, Doesn't put it where you can hurt him, Makes every return
There aren’t many players in tennis who can break into the overwhelming crowd support Federer receives wherever he goes. Rafael Nadal in Spain, perhaps. Andy Murray at Wimbledon – but even that can be a coin toss sometimes.
There surely were more Federer fans than del Potro fans inside Arthur Ashe Wednesday. But the del Potro supporters were so deliriously loud as they chanted and encouraged their man, it felt at times as though they filled the house.
“You made me feel happy every time when I play here. And I love your support. I love to see all the crowd cheering for me, chanting for me, hitting my forehand the same time as me,” del Potro said.
He wasn’t emotional after this victory, as big as it was for him. The big guy was happy.
He knows he has more work to do this week. And he knows he has a shot at the title. He also knows that the match against Nadal, with two inexperienced, first-time semifinalists in the other half, is the de facto final.
Long time between Slam semis
His match Friday will be del Potro’s first Grand Slam semifinal since 2013.
“I cannot believe to play another semifinal. All my injuries, all my surgeries, and especially to play here in New York is great,” he said on court.
“It’s my favourite tournament, my favourite city to play tennis.”
Federer legitimately believed that the right guy won on the night.
“Of course it is a pity, but, you know, Juan Martin deserves it more. I feel I have no place in the semis and he will have a better chance to beat Rafa, to be honest,” he said. “The way I played or playing right now, it’s not good enough in my opinion to win this tournament. It’s better I’m out and somebody else gets a chance to do better than me.”
Del Potro didn’t feel as though he was necessarily that guy. But he has two days to improve his outlook.
“Personally, I like to play against (Nadal) when I’m in good conditions. But it’s not the case at this moment, so I will see what happen,” he said. “But when you play semifinals on the Grand Slam, everything can happen. So you must be ready for the chance and playing against Rafa in my favorite tournament, I will try to enjoy the atmosphere, the game, and I know if I play my best tennis, I could be a danger for him.”
Looking down from above as they nursed their final brandy of the night, the tennis gods may well have been nodding in agreement as they wrapped up their special session.
Because maybe everything did work out as it should, even if they had nothing to do with it.