x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Federer, an artist

We are not noted in the UK for our optimism. Show us a silver lining, and we will point you in the direction of the cloud. But we were almost propelled into next week's US Open tennis on a wave of uncharacteristically high expectations.

Roger Federer, left, could leave Andy Murray trailing his wake at the US Open if he reaches his top form.
Roger Federer, left, could leave Andy Murray trailing his wake at the US Open if he reaches his top form.

We are not noted in the UK for our optimism. Show us a silver lining, and we will point you in the direction of the cloud. But we were almost propelled into next week's US Open tennis on a wave of uncharacteristically high expectations. Andy Murray's triumph in the Rogers Cup in Montreal and his stately progress through the early rounds of the Cincinnati Masters had us believing all the Scot had to do was turn up in Flushing Meadows to be the first Brit to win the US Open since Fred Perry in 1936.

Now we are not so sure. We may have made the mistake - one this column has warned against in the past - of underestimating Roger Federer. And sure enough the Swiss master gave us all a reality check, when he halted Murray's previously unstoppable progress, in the semi-final in Cincinnati, and went on to brush aside the challenge of Novak Djokovic to grab another bauble for his already overcrowded trophy cupboard.

I only hope he has room somewhere for the twins' toys. It was a handy reminder that Federer is not like other tennis players. The term genius is overused in sport, often applied to a football striker blessed with a few tricks who can outwit a full back or two, or a boxer with a handy way of getting under another's guard, but in Federer's case I think it is justified. There is a rare beauty about the way Federer plays tennis. It is the seeming effortlessness of his game that appeals. Is he just gliding around the court, or does he have a sixth sense guiding him to where he needs to be, precisely when he needs to be there?

I watched him closely in his matches against Djokovic and Murray in Cincinnati, and like admiring any great work of art, you knew what you were seeing was special, but it was impossible to analyse exactly why. Murray arrived at the Cincinnati semi-final in prime form. Every time both there and in Montreal that he had found himself in a hole, he had dug deep and tunnelled his way out. He is one of tennis's great battlers, chasing the most lost of lost causes, forever making his opponent play an extra shot or two to prise a point away from him. That is why we British tennis fans love him.

But in Cincinnati, in that semi- final, we actually saw Andy giving up points as lost. I do not think it was anything to do with tiredness or the heat, either. Tennis is so much a game played in the head that it must be terribly demoralising to find Federer in the kind of imperious form where he seems to be putting in about half the effort that you are to the same effect. When you stop huffing and puffing at the end of a point, look across the net, and see an adversary who seems to be barely breaking sweat, the battle is half lost.

Even when Federer is not winning - and both Murray and Nadal have pretty good head-to-head records against him - we admire him unlike Sampras who, rightly or wrongly, we saw as something of an automaton. None of this is to say Federer is a shoo-in for the US Open, but the view from the UK is that if our guy cannot win, we will be happy to swoon over another display of Federer artistry. mkelner@thenational.a