For all the hype surrounding the young guns such as Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis and for all the upsets in the earlier rounds – Andy Murray upended by Kevin Anderson and Rafael Nadal flattened by Fabio Fognini – there is a familiar look to the US Open as it draws to a close.
Yet again Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic are motoring towards each other from opposite sides of the draw, their eyes fixed on a place in Sunday’s final. Today is the penultimate stage in that familiar journey as Federer takes on Stan Wawrinka in the semi-finals and Djokovic faces Marin Cilic, the defending champion.
At the age of 34, Federer shows no sign of slowing down, no sign of frailty. In fact, he is probably playing better now than he has in years. With Stefan Edberg to advise him, listen to him and encourage him, he is playing more aggressively – some would say he is playing with reckless abandon – and he is having a ball. He has spent half a lifetime traipsing around the world from airport to hotel to practice court and now he does it with a wife, four kids and several nannies in tow, but his appetite for the battle and his love of the lifestyle never wavers.
Federer has yet to drop a set in Flushing Meadows this year and on a suffocatingly humid Wednesday night, he marmalised Richard Gasquet 6-3, 6-3, 6-1. Even Federer was impressed with quite how easy he had made his run to the semis look.
“It’s nice to play this way,” he said. “And maybe at my age to run through, you know, five opponents the way I have done here at the US Open, I don’t consider that normal, to be quite honest, even though I expect it in some ways for myself to come out and play well. I’ve played so well over the last one-and-a-half years. I don’t feel like I’m as old as I am. I still feel young. So it’s nice to get rewarded with the hard work and that actually I’m able to play sort of fun tennis, I maybe call it for myself. Aggressive, pick it up, you know, like half volley it, move in, serve and volley, cut the points short, and if I want to, extend the rallies. But it feels like on my terms. Then if you win this way, it’s a great feeling.”
Federer’s record against Wawrinka will give him a great feeling too – played 19, won 16. His fellow Swiss is now a fully paid up member of the grand slam club with an Australian Open and a French Open trophy sitting on his mantelpiece but he still regards himself as a junior partner when he stands beside Federer. That said, Wawrinka knows his own strengths: he beat Nadal to win his Australian title and Djokovic to win the French Open. He dismissed Kevin Anderson on Wednesday 6-4, 6-4, 6-0 and as he heads into today’s match, Wawrinka knows that Federer will look at him with a wary eye.
“I think now we are both nervous when we enter the court,” Wawrinka said. “Before it was only me. I was nervous because I knew I wasn’t at his level, for sure. And now I think we can see that he was also nervous every time we play each other the past few years. That’s a big difference, because that shows how much he knows that I can play at his level, how much he knows that I can try to play my game and not just try to react about what he’s doing.”
The problem for Wawrinka is that he blows hot and cold – when he is cold, he is a sitting target but when he is hot, he has the beating of anyone. He will never have the consistency of Federer or Djokovic but when he is in the mood and his eye is in, Wawrinka knows he can win the biggest titles. It has taken him 30 years to believe in himself and now that he does, he is a threat to everyone.
“I think a lot comes through practice for Stan, because he’s worked very hard throughout his career,” Federer said. “It took him a while to figure out exactly what his possibilities were. I don’t think he was a guy who always had enough confidence.
“I always thought he was a better player than he actually was, but somehow something was holding him back maybe. Then I think in practice he started working to hit the ball harder consistently, and today he can consistently bring the power on forehand, backhand, and serve almost anybody when he gets hot. He beat me in straight sets at the French, so I hope I can do better this time.”
Djokovic, meanwhile, has looked tense in the last few days. He has dropped a set in his last two matches thanks to lapses in concentration as much as the standard of the opposition. But in Cilic, he faces a man he has beaten 13 times in a row. The tall Croat may be the defending champion and he may be enjoying every moment of his run in New York (he thumped down 29 aces to beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Tuesday) but his chances against Djokovic appear slim.
“I know what to do,” Djokovic said ominously. “He has a big serve. The serve gets him out of trouble. I know him very well. I’ve played with him many, many times. We’re great friends. Great guy. I know what to do, and I’m hoping I can execute the game plan and play my best.”