Roger Federer played some vintage tennis at the Championships, but ultimately fell short of winning the title for the 8th time after being defeated by the World's #1 player Novak Djokovic in a rematch of 2014's final.
It wasn't the result that Federer fans wanted to see, but it is one that for me is easy to accept. Beyond the first few moments after the match ended, the disappointment passed. Djokovic is clearly the best player in the world and there is absolutely no shame in a near 34 year-old losing to him in a tough 4-set match. Roger has proven once again that he can still hang with the best in the game even at a point in his career when he is far past his physical prime.
After the mind-boggling semi-final that Roger played against Andy Murray, I thought he had a very good chance to win, but I also knew that Djokovic is a much more difficult opponent for the Swiss. I don't think anyone else would have taken a set off Novak in that match, let alone be close to taking two. Novak was so solid in every department, but particularly his returning, which proved why he possesses the best return of serve that we have ever seen.
Fed served worse than he did against Murray, but that was always going to be the case as it would have been simply phenomenal to serve like that again. Besides, serving is a two-way street, and with the level of the returning, Roger was forced to go for more lines. I lost count of the amount of quality returns Djokovic had, even on good first serves. If he wasn't putting it at Roger's feet he was putting it near a sideline and gaining the advantage right from the start. Whether it's Roger, who uses his serve as a major weapon, or someone like Ferrer who doesn't, the pressure of being on the back foot after a first serve takes its toll over the course of a match, and that was definitely the case on Sunday.
The turning point in the match was at 1-1 in the 3rd set when Fed was up 40-15 and lost four straight points to lose the break. The first three points were all won by Djokovic, but the break was lost on a horrendous forehand miss that Roger usually makes in his sleep. From there Fed seemed deflated and Novak raised his game to make it tough for Fed to get the break back. There was a 20-minute rain delay at 3-2 and Fed came out flat after it, but I thought the difference was made before that.
I'm sure Roger would have been kicking himself after the match that he was broken at such a critical time on such a stupid miss, though of course Djokovic could have very well broken anyways if the break point was saved. Perhaps the pressure of Djokovic's game would have worn down Fed mentally and the result would have been the same, but you never know what might have transpired had Roger held and the set had gone deeper with holds exchanged.
After all is said and done, you just have to take your hat off to Djokovic. He played a great tournament coming off the heartbreak of the French Open loss to Wawrinka, and he was as solid as ever when he needed to be. Though he is Roger's biggest rival at the moment, I have great respect for being a good ambassador for the game the last few years since his rise to the #1 ranking in 2011. He's showing Federer-esque consistency at the majors and you could argue he's even playing better now than he was in 2011, when he started the year undefeated for the first five months. The future is impossible to predict, but I could definitely see him matching Nadal and Sampras' 14 major titles in the next few years.
As for Roger, he'll go back to the practice hard courts and prepare for the US Open. He should have a great chance to go deep, and with a few factors going his way, maybe he makes the final and competes for his 6th title there at Flushing Meadows. Wimbledon was definitely his best chance this year but he is still the second best hardcourt player in the world at the moment and I think he can beat everyone there bar Djokovic (and Nadal, but he has to prove a lot right now) if his level remains high.
Fed has proven the ability to bounce back from tough losses his entire career, and I expect this to be no different. He knows that if he keeps putting himself in positions to win majors, a break will come where an in-the-zone Djokovic isn't on the opposite side of the net. He's at a point with his game where I don't think there will be that much decline in his performance for the next 12 months if he stays healthy. He's more comfortable with the bigger racquet than ever and he's conserving his body so well with his pinpoint serving and aggressive net-rushing hybrid style.
The rest of the year should be fun to watch as all of the courts suit Fed's game - Canada, Cincinnati, New York, Basel, Shanghai, and the World Tour Finals. He has a final and a win to defend before the US Open but if he can enter the last major of the year as the #2 seed it would give him the best chance, most obviously because a match with Djokovic would only come in the final. We're still a month away from Montreal beginning, however, so in the meantime, he'll probably have some nice time off before he hits the ground running.
To wrap up, I just want to talk a bit about some comments that Pat Cash and others have been making about Roger playing "the best tennis of his career." Not only is that inaccurate, it is actually kind of degrading to the ridiculously high level Roger was playing at the peak of his powers in 2005 and 2006. Had he possessed the '06 ground game in the final against Novak, he very well may have won in 4 sets, as the big edge Novak had in the baseline rallies would not exist. John McEnroe said after the semis that he had never seen Fed move better, and I just had to shake my head at that repeatedly. I know John knows Roger was once much quicker around the court, because he witnessed it numerous times in the commentary box.
I think there are parts of Roger's game that are as good or better than ever, namely his serve and volleying. Edberg has done a great job at getting him to attack the net more urgently, and his second serve has more pop than ever (racquet aids that I know). However, his forehand is nowhere near as potent as it used to be, while his movement to that side has clearly declined also. I'm not trying to downplay the great level Roger is still playing at, but it is certainly not true that he's a better player now than he was then, regardless of what he may say himself. After all, what would he say? "I am much easier to beat now compared to ten years ago." Even if he knows that to be true, there would be no benefit for him to actually say that in the media.
This was the first piece of writing I have done this year, and I'm happy to get it out. I'll be writing regularly the rest of the year and I may have a surprise or two coming as well. I have always been an optimistic fan and I like to think I bring a good perception to these kind of disappointments. Just remembering that he's almost 34 and still playing this well is inspiring as a fan, and I'm sure it is for the other over-30s on the tour. It's fantastic that he still loves competing so much that he will continue to work hard to win another major. Whether it happens or not in the next year or two, the journey will be fun and at every passing tournament we can be proud of all he is still doing in the game of tennis.