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Kurt Streeter

Federer feels like himself again

September 07, 2008|Kurt Streeter

NEW YORK -- That was more like it.

More like the genius we're used to. More like sweet-swinging artiste we've come to know.

"I definitely had that feeling out there today which I had quite often in the past," Roger Federer said, following a dismissal of Novak Djokovic that launched him into the U.S. Open finals for the fifth straight time.

He said this while sitting at a table hunched over a microphone, typically understated. But on this day, there was nothing understated about his game. For the first time this tournament, for the first time in months, Roger Federer looked like his old self.

Opening point, the crowd still settling under the dark clouds of Saturday morning, Federer rocked back, cocked his arm and fired an ace. This would be a harbinger in the rematch of last year's final.

He was flawless in the first set, his white Nikes skimming the green pavement behind the baseline, his ground strokes struck with precision and power. Twenty-five minutes after it started, the first set was his: 6-3.

True, Djokovic tied the match by winning a tough second set. But with the third set tied, 5-5, Federer upped the ante again, starting matters with a flowing backhand pass that caused the fans to go apoplectic with delight.

Throughout this tournament it has been clear that Federer, after finally showing some cracks in the veneer, is more beloved by fans than ever. Now they stirred, hopeful the four-time champ would find a way to break open this match.

Break point came quickly. Djokovic served. A scrambling point ensued. When Federer roped a backhand that his opponent pushed long, he was in command. One game later, the third set was his, 7-5, and it seemed like every last soul in Arthur Ashe Stadium rose as one, ecstatic.

Federer once described the feeling he gets while reeling off batches of games in quicksilver fashion as being akin to flying. Recently, we have seen him fly less often.

But on Saturday, he took to the sky again. In the fourth set, he let loose with three aces in the opening game. Soon after, he struck one of the hardest, flattest, surest backhands in recent memory.

Next came a flurry of passing shots and mad scramble returns and a drop shot hit from just inside the baseline that fluttered over the net.

Djokovic was reduced to moping along, stuck a few feet behind the baseline. He helplessly watched as Federer screamed a forehand winner to take the match: 6-3, 5-7, 7-5, 6-2.

"I had moments out there where I felt, this is how I normally play on hardcourt," Federer remarked, after acknowledging his recent troubles. "Half volleys, passing shots, good serving, putting the pressure on, playing with the wind, using it to my advantage. This is how I would like to play every time. So it was a very nice feeling, actually, to get the feeling back."

Asked whether he would prefer to play Rafael Nadal or the young Brit, Andy Murray, Federer admitted that he would rather play the Spaniard. For those who have been living on Pluto, he reminded that the two players have a little rivalry going. Revenge would be sweet.

Murray may scuttle any chance for this. His match was suspended for the day because of the driving rain, but he was up by two sets, 6-2, 7-6, and though he was down a break in the third he will have a big advantage when the match resumes today.

The average sports fan knows about Nadal. The average tennis fan knows a little about Murray, but not much. This would be the first time, after all, that the 21-year-old has crashed the Grand Slam gates.

What's his game like? Well, back in 1986, another unheralded player, a Czech named Miloslav Mecir, made his way to the U.S. Open finals. He got crushed by Ivan Lendl, but his game was unmistakable, and it drove his opponents nuts.

Mecir was tall, rangy, always balanced, extremely deceptive, and he reveled in a cat-and-mouse game where he would bait opponents to the net and then knock winners past them. The best way to describe Murray is that he plays like a modern Mecir.

So now the U.S. Open men's final will pit the smooth Swiss against either the spindly Brit or the tough-guy Spaniard. I predicted in this space that if Federer is to win the U.S. Open of 2008, it will be a hard and rocky road.

Neither Nadal nor Murray figures to make it easier. But if Federer plays the sure and certain way he did in the semifinals, then just like the grounds at Flushing Meadows on Saturday, my prediction may prove all wet.

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Kurt Streeter can be reached at kurt.streeter@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Streeter, go to latimes.com/streeter.

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