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US Open 2017 - Federer looking onwards & upwards after instructive Tiafoe test

By Guillaume Willecoq   on   Thursday 31 August 2017
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With advancing age, players increasingly know the score and can put things into perspective. Accordingly, 36-year-old Roger Federer was unperturbed by being pushed to five sets in the US Open first round, instead opting to accentuate the positives after outlasting Frances Tiafoe on his return to action. The Swiss's troublesome back, which flared up during the Montreal Masters final, did not bother him – a victory in itself – and he will now look to kick on when he faces fellow veteran Mikhail Youzhny on Thursday.

After continuing his dream 2017 by plundering the Wimbledon title at the age of 36, having already lifted the trophy in Australia, none other than Roger Federer himself noted that victory in New York might be a bridge too far. "That would be a joke, if I won three Slams this year out of nowhere," said the great man, albeit with something of a twinkle in his eye.

The Swiss has a keen sense of humour, but he cannot have been too amused by being bullied by American young gun Frances Tiafoe during stretches of his five-set win (4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4) in his US Open curtain-raiser. This was just the second time since 2003, when he claimed his maiden Grand Slam crown, that Federer has been taken to a fifth set in a first-round encounter at a major. And he does not exactly have good memories of the previous occasion: it came at Wimbledon 2010 when, although he rallied to overturn a two-sets-to-love deficit against Alejandro Falla in his opener, he was subsequently upset by Tomas Berdych in the quarter-finals, halting his bid for an eighth consecutive final appearance at SW19.

"There are lots of takeaways that will stand me in good stead"

But Federer, no stranger to playing his way into form and well aware that such encounters can provide a great platform to build on, had many reasons to smile following the clash at the Arthur Ashe Stadium. Indeed, having seemingly shaken off the back niggles that hamstrung him during his Rogers Cup final defeat in Montreal and kept him out of the next Masters 1000 event in Cincinnati, the 36-year-old appeared positively thrilled with how his body held up during his two hours and 37 minutes out on court. This is a relative breeze by five-setter standards – by way of comparison, it took Rafael Nadal just 20 minutes less to dispatch Dusan Lajovic in straight sets (7-6, 6-2, 6-2) – and the exertions should not unduly deplete the 19-time Grand Slam champion's reserves if he really is back to full fitness.

Speaking after what he himself described as an "up and down" display, which featured a less-than-impressive ratio of 56 unforced errors to 41 winners, the world No.3 insisted that it was only normal that he should take a while to hit his stride: "I didn't have the preparation I was hoping to get. Since Montreal, the focus has been more on the back and just making sure I could play the tournament, rather than being well prepared. I always knew I was going to come in feeling rusty or not great." This notwithstanding, he conceded that, "I'd been hoping to start better. I really struggled early on… I just really lost my footing sometimes; my eye wasn't working, I was misjudging distances, and I think I was also being a bit cautious with my movement."

After a set and a half during which he was visibly regaining his bearings and gauging his back's response, "it all started to come together" and Federer was "able to let go". "To get through a five-setter you have to be OK somehow, so I believe this is going to give me great confidence in my body and also in my game. Despite the lapse in the fourth set, I retook control of the match right away. I knew that if I played a bit better, I'd end up winning. Considering my poor start, my disrupted preparations and the nerves, it was a good performance. There are lots of takeaways that will stand me in good stead."

Last time a player won a Grand Slam after being extended to five sets in the first round? Rafael Nadal at Roland-Garros 2011

So far, so positive: but what about negatives? Can the fourth set really be put down as a mere lapse? If he felt at all flustered, Federer did a good job of hiding it. Whatever the case may be, it would be wise not to read too much into his struggles, in spite of the aforementioned cautionary tale involving Falla. Granted, you have to go back to Rafael Nadal's 2011 Roland-Garros conquest for the last time a player won a Grand Slam after being extended to five sets in the first round, and it hasn't happened at Flushing Meadows since Patrick Rafter's 1998 triumph. However, when it comes to unknown quantities and the opportunity for fine-tuning offered by Round 1 encounters, we would do well to remember Federer's comeback at the Australian Open in January. Looking back on his workmanlike four-set victory over Jurgen Melzer in Melbourne, there was little to suggest what the Swiss was set to deliver in the following days and months.

Not even the maestro himself saw it coming – and nor is he under any illusions as to the task at hand in New York: "I am not 25 anymore. I'm not sure I can win three Slams in one year [ten years since he last did so]. Winning two is already pretty crazy and plenty good enough for me." Yet, despite this philosophical outlook, the veteran remains optimistic: "If I'd felt, going into this tournament, that my back was going to get worse with every match, I probably wouldn't have played. My hope and belief is that it can only get better from here."

Relive his masterpiece against Novak Djokovic in the Roland-Garros semi-finals

Federer - Djokovic, 2011 semifinal: highlights
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