Last year’s result
Federer was the pre-tournament favourite for many going into the US Open last year after winning in Melbourne, completing the Sunshine Double for the third time and dominating in SW19 to win the Wimbledon title without dropping a set. But the first cracks in the facade had appeared in Montreal where he picked up a back strain in defeat to Zverev in the final and he never looked entirely himself in New York. He battled into the last eight, but there del Potro had too much in four.
Federer’s Wimbledon title-defence was ended by the booming serve and monstrous forehand of Anderson, who fought back from two sets and a match point down to win 2-6 6-7 7-5 6-4 13-11. That defeat understandably took a heavy mental and physical toll on Federer, who did not return to action until last week in Cincinnati. He arrived looking to win his eighth title in the American Midwest where he had never lost a final and has long been a fan-favourite.
Federer began smartly enough, brushing aside Gojowczyk of Germany and Argentina’s Mayer in straight sets to reach the quarterfinals. There he faced his countryman Wawrinka and for much of the match looked as though he would be making another quarterfinal exit. But he hung tough to win through 6-7 7-6 6-2. He then reached the final when Goffin retired after losing the first set. But there he proved unable to challenge Djokovic, with the Serb dismissing him 6-4 6-4.
Most important shot
For Federer there can be no doubt that his most important shot is his serve. He still has useful weapons off the ground, with his forehand good enough to see off most opponents and his skills at the net rivalled by few on the Tour. But as Djokovic ruthlessly exposed in the Cincinnati final, when Federer’s serve is not firing, he no longer has the quality off the ground to overcome the best in the game although, in fairness, Federer was not at his best in any department in that match.
Nonetheless, it is Federer’s serve that has become his match-winning weapon. And it is a formidable one. Even on an off day, he was able to ace Djokovic 11 times. The Swiss had also held serve 100 times in a row in Cincinnati, a run that stretched back to 2014, until the seventh game of the 2018 final when Djokovic broke him. When he is serving well he becomes almost impossible to beat, and at 37, his ability to deliver quickfire holds is also invaluable for the energy it allows him to conserve.
Federer may have been the favourite going into New York last year, but finds himself a distant third behind Nadal and Djokovic this season. But he is still ahead of the rest of the field and with good reason. He has won five titles in New York, will receive the lion’s share of the crowd’s support even against an American opponent and is unquestionably one of the greatest players of all time. No one in the draw can match his Grand Slam winning pedigree.
Except that is for the two men who have ruled the tennis world alongside him for the past decade-and-a-half. At the moment, particularly after the final in Cincinnati, it would be hard to back Federer against either of them. And, he had quite a kind draw in Ohio, New York is unlikely to be so obliging. Federer does still have the star power and quality to overawe and overcome most opponents, but as out-of-form as he is, looking beyond the semifinals would be bold.