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KURT STREETER

Federer lets his genius out of bottle

September 09, 2008|Kurt Streeter

NEW YORK -- We expected a very good match, maybe even a great one. What we got on this warm evening in Queens, save for a few brief moments, was a wipeout.

By a score of 6-2, 7-5, 6-2, Roger Federer waltzed through Scottish upstart Andy Murray on Monday, adding a fifth consecutive U.S. Open to his bulging stack of Grand Slam titles, now numbering 13.

The score pretty well tells the story of this match, a final played a day late because rain Saturday had briefly halted play and set the schedule back. Federer dominated, sputtered for a moment, and laid down the hammer at the end.

In hindsight, perhaps we should have known this was coming. After his upset win over Rafael Nadal, Murray brought to Arthur Ashe Stadium fine talent and no Grand Slam final experience. Federer brought genius talent and great experience.

"I know what it takes to win here," Federer said, once the 1-hour 51-minute throttling was done. "I know that usually I play my best on big occasions, especially here in New York. . . . I knew it was always going to be tough on Andy."

Perhaps it was because the guy on the other side of the net was not named Nadal, perhaps because he simply feels great comfort playing at Flushing Meadows. But for some reason Federer looked different here than he had in his tough losses at the French Open and Wimbledon. He appeared looser and more at ease as he warmed up and then toed the baseline to start the match.

As in his dominating semifinal win against Novak Djokovic, the first serve Federer struck foreshadowed the match: It was a fastball ace, down the middle.

They played the first eight games in 27 minutes, with Federer displaying sharp aggression, often hitting from inside the baseline. He hardly made an easy error. He pushed the score to 6-2 by forcing a Murray miss.

When Federer plays like this, he is equal parts bully and Baryshnikov: powerful, fluid, undeniable, beautiful to watch.

Among the eye-popping highlights were driving backhand returns off 128-mph Murray serves and a sky-high lob that looked to be headed for the stands, only to fall in. There were also sprints, drop shots on the dead run and, maybe most of all, booming forehands that forced Murray far behind the baseline almost all match long.

Thankfully, in the second set, Murray made matters a little interesting. He settled in. For a short few games, he jerked the Swiss around the court, as he had done to Nadal in his semifinal win.

At 2-2 in the second set, Murray quickly forced a trio of break points. You could feel tension growing in the stands: Was this suddenly going to be a replay of the rocky matches Federer has played this year? Was Murray about to make his way back?

On the second break point came a moment that could have changed the tone of the entire affair. During a long rally, a Federer shot appeared to land just beyond the baseline but was called good. Murray could have challenged the call, but he would have had to stop the rally midstream. Lose the challenge and he would lose the point. So he chose to hang in.

Federer won the point and shortly afterward won the game. Unfortunately, TV replays showed that if Murray had challenged he would have been right: Federer's shot on break point was out.

It "should have been my game," Murray said in his news conference. This "would not necessarily have won the match or anything, but it would have given me a bit of confidence. I wasn't really ahead in any of the set."

As dead-on an assessment as any. Federer would win the second set. Then, for five games, he'd shift into genius gear, and it felt like Murray wasn't even on the court. The score raced to 5-0. Murray showed some of his defensive brilliance in winning two games, but in the end it didn't matter. Federer closed the match by forcing another miss, which sent him sprawling to the court in elation and relief.

This was a lukewarm match, but when it was done both men were headed in the same direction -- up.

Murray, who bore the burden of trying to be the first British man to win a Grand Slam event since 1936, came to the news conference subdued and disappointed, but he said all the right things. He spoke of his opponent's greatness. He made no excuses. After this tournament he moves up to No. 4 in the world. This fortnight, he said, would be a steppingstone to better things. He was right.

Federer was also subdued, but he smiled a lot more, a given after he became the first man to have won five consecutive Wimbledons and five straight U.S. Opens. He said this win should calm the doubts that arose with his rough play and Grand Slam losses this year. He credited the Olympic gold medal he won with Stanislas Wawrinka in doubles for helping get the old mojo back.

"I played great, you know," Federer added, sitting feet from the tall, silver U.S. Open trophy. "I felt like I was invincible for a while again, and that's exactly how you want to finish a tournament."

Tennis fans hoped for a better final, but at least they saw what some thought we might never see again: Roger Federer at a Grand Slam final, in full flight.

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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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