I had the privilege of seeing Roger Federer play tennis live five years ago in Montreal in 2009. I had just turned 17 years old and had been playing the game since I was 10. I had been a big Federer fan for a few years by then and had the opportunity to see him not once, but twice. And it was better than I ever thought it would be.
My father and I went to his 3rd round match against his countryman, friend, Olympic Gold medal winner, and now, current Grand Slam champion, Stan Wawrinka. Federer won that match in two tight sets. I walked away quite amazed with the experience. We went back the next day to see Federer's quarterfinal against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. If you remember, that was the match where Roger was up 5-1 in the 3rd set and lost in a tiebreak. But even though the final memory of that match was sour to me as a fan, I remember that the atmosphere was exquisite. An example: Federer was serving to force a tiebreak at 5-6 in the final set after having lost 5 games on the bounce. He got down 0-40 but eventually won the game. The second he secured the hold, the whole crowd got up on its feet and gave him a standing ovation for a good 20 seconds. That moment has stuck with me to this day.
I went for a day in Toronto the year after in 2010, but Federer was playing his 2nd round match in the night session against Juan Ignacio Chela and we went to see the day session. I didn't go in 2011 and 2012 and didn't see him again in last year because he wasn't there of course. (Though I did see a great Raonic/Gulbis quarterfinal – plus Gulbis walked past me earlier in the day. Ah.)
This year, my mother and I went down to Toronto from Ottawa (where I live) on Thursday to see the entire quarterfinal session on Friday. She had never seen Federer play live and really wanted to see him. She has always loved watching him, partially because of me being such a big fan, and she wanted to see the wizardry on full display in the flesh.
On the Thursday night Federer played Marin Cilic in the 3rd round and as if our faith was being tested, Roger failed to convert seven match points before losing in the tiebreak. The third set was about as testy and nervy a set from a personal standpoint that I've ever watched in a non-Major event. We went down with the hope of seeing Roger and he was about to lose the night before! Well, thankfully he didn't as the lion roars and the intense “chum jetze” screams came out as he scrapped past Cilic.
On Friday, we got into the grounds a little late and caught the tail end of a doubles quarterfinal – Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares, the second seeds, versus Horian Tecau and Jean-Julien Rojer. Let me tell you – if you've never seen doubles live, go see it. The game is so fast and reflexive and entertaining and television doesn't do the game justice. In the set that I saw, there were some amazing points that had the crowd “oohing” and “aahing.” Bottom line is, go see doubles if you're ever at a tournament, because it's fun.
The first match of the day was Tsonga vs Murray. Both men have struggled this year for the most part so I was not sure how this match would turn out, but in the end it was a really fun match with good shotmaking and intense drama. Tsonga won the first set playing big-bomb tennis. Murray fought hard to win the second set and then pulled away in the 3rd – or so we all thought in the audience – before the Frenchman stormed back to win 6 of the last 7 games. At 5-4 when Jo was serving for the win, Andy saved 3 match points from 40-0 down and then missed a very makeable backhand pass at deuce. He lost the next point and after the handshake, he slammed his racquet down into his bag – something I myself have a lot of experience doing. There's no question that Andy is going through some tough struggles at the moment, and ever since his historic Wimbledon victory, but I have no doubt he'll be back contending for majors soon. His work ethic is too great.
After the match, we walked around the grounds and eventually took in a bit of doubles once again – Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic vs Edouard Roger-Vasselin and Julien Benneteau. My one observation about the match that stood out was how far into the court the players get when serving. Benneteau especially was very extreme, tossing the ball well into the court and nearly angling his whole body. Funny enough I tried to do the same thing a few days later and actually found myself getting more pop on the serve. Thanks, Julien (…I suppose).
My Mom and I walked around the grounds a bit and saw some practices while Grigor Dimitrov and Kevin Anderson were playing on Centre Court. I caught the last few games and the final set tiebreak almost 3 hours after the match began. Anderson should have won the tiebreak but he choked it away. It didn't help matters that on match point down and a second serve, the loud Bulgarian Dimitrov fans yelled out right as he was about to serve and he double faulted. I didn't like that, from a fan or player perspective.
Since the second singles day quarterfinal lasted so long, the feature match between Milos Raonic and Feliciano Lopez was delayed and they got on late. The crowd was raucous the whole match even though the big Canadian struggled throughout most of it. When you see him live (which I have twice now), it's so evident to see that his return is horrendous. I don't think it's his height – because we've seen other tall guys be great returners – but I believe he doesn't possess the feel on the return to just block a return in play, even when he isn't stretched wide. It's as if his co-ordination is off as he tries to set the racquet face on the ball.
Anyways, Lopez thoroughly deserved to win as he was the better player throughout, even though the match went to three. It looked like the Spaniard was going to fold after losing the second set tiebreaker, but he hung on, and the big turning point was him saving 9 break points in the fifth game (a game that highlighted Raonic's deficiencies on return more than any other in his career).
And now finally, after a long day under the heat, and after the crazy atmosphere in the Raonic match, Federer was set to come on – on his birthday no less! We were sitting up at the highest level in the northeast corner of the stadium, but we were actually at a great vantage point to see the intricacies of the Federer game. It really is like no other player.
I won't go into too many details about the match, but I can sum it up like this: Federer was patchy with strokes of brilliance but stretches of over-hit groundstrokes that left him frustrated (think, maybe 20% of the trouble he had in the final vs Tsonga). Ferrer fought hard after going down a break in the second set and he made Roger play from the baseline. It certainly wasn't one of Federer's best 150 matches on tour, but some of the shotmaking he displayed had me shaking my head in awe.
When you see Roger live you really get the sense of how high-risk his game is even if it looks otherwise. TV does a good job of that, but not as good as when you see him in a live capacity. The first thing you notice is how early he takes the ball, particularly off the backhand side. Ferrer actually did quite a good job in this match of constantly hitting to the backhand side and getting the ball up high, but Roger, in classic Roger fashion, rarely backed off the baseline. To me, it's quite a wonder how Roger took the ball so early for so long with that 90 inch frame, because one little miscalculation in the swing would result in a mishit or framed shot. Just goes to show how excellent a mover he was that he was so often in the perfect position to hit thunderous forehands time and time again throughout a match (let alone a tournament, season, year, and year(s). I've played with his BLX 90 (that he used in 2010-2011) for a few years now and that racquet doesn't really give much help – you have to do a lot of the work yourself to generate pace. I think growing up in the era he did helped Roger hone that ridiculously aggressive swing though, as the only way he could get away with doing so was to keep the head still until after contact. So many pro players, including Ferrer look at the point where the racquet goes through after impact instead of looking at the impact point itself.
You also notice how well Fed still moves, even on his 33rd birthday. When he was on our side of the court, you can see his big leg muscles and how well he uses his whole lower body in the process of moving across the baseline and to the net. Of course he isn't as light on his feet now as he was years ago, but with all the mileage on his body, he is still one of the best athletes on tour. You really see that in person.
Overall, I was thrilled with seeing Roger once again and even happier that he managed to win on his birthday. I have seen Berdych, Nalbandian, Murray twice, Ferrer twice, Raonic twice, and Gulbis but nobody will ever amaze me with their tennis like Roger does when seeing him live. I think it's only when you do that you appreciate every little detail of his game that has made him the living legend we see today.
Since this is Jonathan's excellent site that brings us Fed fans all together in a great environment, I'll share a few of my opinions regarding Roger, the way his season has gone thus far and what lies ahead.
First of all, it was a disappointing Sunday for him as he played woefully from the baseline (as bad as I've ever seen him) against Tsonga in the final. It was unfortunate that he played four night matches and had a quick turnaround before the day final, which featured much faster conditions. (And Federer said he got to bed at 3:00 am on Saturday morning, so you can imagine he got to bed well after midnight after the semi. That sort of turnaround is much tougher at his age than it was 10 years ago.) I look at it this way though: he'd rather make the final and lose than go out to Cilic or Ferrer and not make the final at all. Sure, it's underwhelming that his final record dropped to 2-5 this year, but he made 3 finals all of last year, so in comparison it's pretty good.
I do believe that Roger is right where he wants to be heading into the US Open. Unlike last year he's healthy and can focus strictly on tennis. Unlike last year, he has had a successful season with numerous points where confidence was built, leading up to his near-victory at the Wimbledon final. And the kicker for me heading into the US Open (which Nadal may or may not participate in) is that there will be a day between the semi and final, which is very advantageous for recovery should he make the semis and win it (let's hope!)
And finally to conclude, I have noticed this year that Roger is very competitive on court and wears his emotions on his sleeve a lot more than he used to. In his 2nd round match against Vasek Pospisil in Cincinnati, he was berating himself a few times after missing easy shots and then used that fire to play a great 3rd set and take the match. That was only a 2nd round match, but he hadn't broken serve in over 4 sets before finally breaking through (ha, get it?) at the start of the 3rd – he knew how important the match was for his psyche. And at this stage of his illustrious career, what lies between the ears is everything.
When he's not confident, he's playing timid, safe baseline tennis – which is obviously not his style. When he's confident, well, he's Roger flippin' Federer – playing quick-strike attacking tennis through his serve, forehand, and net play. He also returns much better when that confidence is rolling – he hits over more backhand returns and gets a little more depth on the block slice return. With the way the game is played now though, his ground game must be solid in order to succeed against the best players – because even if he isn't hitting outright baseline winners, hitting strong, hard approach shots from inside the court wins him a ton of points. At his age he can't afford to get backed up behind the baseline. He must be dictating the play. However, having said all that, this year he has found a way time and time again to scrape out victories even when he's not playing his best, and that's a credit to how much he still wants to win and how much he still cares. He has nothing left to prove to anybody, yet he remains so passionate.
Thanks for allowing me to share my experience of going to the Rogers Cup to see Mr. Federer (and others). Thanks Jonathan for asking me if I'd like to write this. But most of all, thanks to Roger for not losing to Cilic on Thursday night before I saw him Friday!