NEW YORK — A man from Seattle flew 2,800 miles with his kids to see Roger Federer at the US Open. Jagbir Singh figured it would be a quick day Thursday, because it usually is when Federer plays an early-round match. Maybe they’d get an early supper. Somewhere around the fourth set, Singh’s daughter buried her head in her lap and could no longer watch.
Such is life this week for Federer fans at the US Open.
Federer was neither elegant nor dominant, but he survived to beat Mikhail Youzhny 6-1, 6-7 (3), 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. It was the second straight match that Federer was pushed to the limit, as he also struggled against 19-year-old Frances Tiafoe on Tuesday night in the first round. This is the first time Federer has started any major tournament with consecutive five-set matches.
Federer joked in his on-court interview that long matches are fun and that they’d warm him up for the rest of the tournament. But his legions of fans who packed Arthur Ashe Stadium were far more stressed out. The 3-hour, 8-minute match was peppered with groans in between stunned silence. The crowd chanted his name and pumped their firsts along with Federer when he finally emerged from a day that resembled a boxing match between two middle-aged warriors.
Youzhny wasn’t supposed to make it this interesting; he’d played Federer 16 times heading into Thursday and had lost every single match. They even played each other in juniors, back in the late 1990s. Federer was always the winner. But Youzhny almost pulled it off, and if the 35-year-old Russian hadn’t had his first-round match moved to Wednesday, because of Tuesday’s rain, maybe he could’ve pulled off the biggest upset of the US Open.
Maybe if Youzhny hadn’t started cramping at the end of the third set, when he seemed in command, Federer’s bid for three Grand Slams in 2017 would’ve ended. Federer, one of the smoothest and most fluent players in the history of tennis, had 68 unforced errors against a player who is ranked No. 101.
But if he was worried about Thursday’s events, Federer certainly didn’t show it. He was bantering with someone as he walked into his postgame news conference and spent oodles of time with the Swiss media roughly an hour after the match.
He insisted that the back injury that kept him out of the Cincinnati Masters two weeks ago was not a factor, and that he felt it was getting stronger.
He said he wasn’t worried about fatigue being a factor later on in the tournament, either.
“I think because you’re on a high, you’re thrilled that you got through, so you don’t look at the negative,” Federer said. “Or I don’t. Yes, I might feel more tired than I normally would going into a third round, but that’s OK.
“My preparation hasn’t been good at all here. I knew I was going to maybe struggle early on. Maybe I struggled more than I would have liked to. But I’m still in the draw, which gives me a chance. I still believe I’m going to pick up my game and become just more consistent, because I’m not playing all that bad. It’s just that I’m going a bit up and down in waves throughout the match.”
When he won Wimbledon in July, Federer went the entire tournament without dropping a set. That’s how dominant he’s been in 2017. He won the Australian Open after a six-month break from tennis in 2016 to rest and recover.
His fans will worry that his 36-year-old body might be running out of steam. That the renaissance year might be ending. Federer, for his part, isn’t panicking. He admitted that his opener Tuesday night was probably scarier, just because he didn’t know how his back would respond.
“Now I can just look forward to play tennis,” he said. “With a bit of fatigue, that’s OK. I’ve done that hundreds of times.”
High in the rafters of Arthur Ashe Stadium on Thursday, Singh was one of the few Federer fans who wasn’t worried. He and so many other tennis fans have come from all over because they know they’re watching something special — and someone who won’t be around much longer.
Maybe Federer can feel that, too. He played a practice round in Central Park on Wednesday, and all the people who left their courts to watch energized him. Federer said he hopes he can do it again, that he’ll have many more days like this in New York. For Federer’s sake, they need to be shorter days.