If Roger Federer is suffering from sleep deprivation following the birth of his second set of twins this summer, he certainly isn’t showing any signs. In fact, the father of four appears to be playing with boundless energy of late, defying his 33 years.
The seemingly ageless Swiss has established himself as the world’s best hard-court player over the past month, winning nine of 10 matches and taking the trophy in Cincinnati last week with 3-month-old Leo and Lennart and 5-year-olds Myla and Charlene in tow.
He is 19-2 since the French Open and reached four consecutive finals, including a thriller at Wimbledon, which he lost in five sets to top-ranked Novak Djokovic.
This week, he packs up his family, strollers and racket bags and heads to New York for the 2014 U.S. Open, where the withdrawal of injured Rafael Nadal elevates Federer to the No. 2 seed and makes him co-favorite with Djokovic.
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On the women’s side, 32-year-old Serena Williams, like Federer, is coming off a win at Cincinnati and chasing an 18th Grand Slam title and a sixth U.S. Open title. If she wins, she would become the oldest female champion in the Open Era since 31-year-old Margaret Court won in 1973.
That Federer is in contention to win an 18th major is impressive, considering how many times it seemed his career was fading. Equally (maybe more) extraordinary is the fact that he will be playing in his 60th consecutive Slam, a streak that goes back to 1999, when he was 18 years old.
Nadal, by contrast, has missed one major each of the past three years.
“It’s obviously remarkable and unbelievable that he’s been able to do this consistently well for this long — to do that, 60 majors in a row, is heroic in a way,” ESPN commentator John McEnroe said. “That should not be underestimated or underappreciated by tennis fans, that he’s stepped up every single time.”
Said ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe: “We just saw him up close at Cincinnati, and you just marvel at him. His movement is so phenomenal. Normally when players reach their early 30s, they lose a half-step. Greatness has to be measured in quite a few ways, and longevity is one way, and he’s on top of the list.”
Added Brad Gilbert: “His streak is off the charts. He seems to play without even sweating. One of the only guys who plays on clay, you look at his socks, he doesn’t even have any dirt on his socks. That blows me away.”
Federer has managed to stay motivated and avoid serious injury thanks to his calm demeanor and fluid and efficient playing style, which doesn’t punish the body as much as Nadal’s go-for-broke approach. Federer also benefits from smart scheduling and excellent training.
“Roger is so easy going, so he won’t get mentally burned out,” Chris Evert said. “He lets losses roll off his back. When he loses, he takes his entourage out to dinner. When I lost, I went back to the hotel and sulked. And his game is so efficient. He doesn’t try to wear you down with 18-ball rallies, so that preserves his body.”
Determined to stick around as long as possible, Federer last year switched to a new racket and a new coach, former great Stefan Edberg, who has convinced Federer to go the net more, which shortens rallies.
“When you weigh the pluses and minuses of the greatest of all time, that would come into it a little bit,” John McEnroe said of Federer’s longevity. “Clearly his head-to-head record with Nadal [10-23] would be a negative. That seems to be a matchup that he doesn’t feel comfortable with. Obviously, not having to deal with him [at the U.S. Open] is a huge positive for him.”
Federer reached six consecutive U.S. Open finals between 2004 and ’09 but hasn’t gotten that far since. This could be the year he wins again.
He wouldn’t have to face Djokovic until the final, and Federer’s half of the bracket looks easier than Djokovic’s, which includes Andy Murray, Australian Open champ Stan Wawrinka, No. 5 Milos Raonic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and big-serving American John Isner.
Federer’s biggest hurdles appear to be No. 4 David Ferrer, whom he beat in Cincinnati, and No. 7 Grigor Dmitrov, the promising Bulgarian.
Djokovic looked as good as ever winning Wimbledon, but has lost two of his past three matches after marrying longtime girlfriend Jelena Ristic in mid-July. Nevertheless, McEnroe believes Djokovic will have a strong U.S. Open.
“I would give a slight, slight favorite to Djokovic [over Federer] based on it being best-of-five [and not best-of-three],” John McEnroe said. “He’s younger and he can go the distance perhaps a little bit more easily than Roger at this stage.”
Federer had a busy summer schedule, but the court time is paying off.
“I could have just not played [in Cincinnati] and gone into the Open feeling good about my chances; now I feel even better,” he said. “On the flip coin, what was the other plan? Practice, take a few days off? I still believe matches are the best practice right now.
“Now I come in with great confidence. I can really rest now. I know my game is where I want it to be. It’s about just keeping that level up right now.”
Williams also is feeling rejuvenated.
“I feel great at 32,” she said after beating Ana Ivanovic 6-4, 6-1 in the Cincinnati final. “I'm in some of the best shape I've been in. I can play long points and be ready to go again. I feel really fit. Thirty-two is the new 22, right?”
When: Monday-Sept. 8.
Where: New York.
Defending champions: Rafael Nadal (men), Serena Williams (women).
Surface: Hard court.
TV: ESPN/ESPN2, CBS.
Players to Watch
Novak Djokovic: The top-ranked Serb, who has reached the past four U.S. Open finals, played magnificently to win Wimbledon and got married the following week. But he has struggled since the wedding, going out early in back-to-back events.
Roger Federer: With injured Rafael Nadal out and Djokovic in a bit of a funk, it’s the perfect time for 33-year-old Federer to win his sixth U.S. Open. He is 19-2 since the French Open and has a relatively easy draw.
Andy Murray: For years, the Scot was motivated by his quest to become the first British Wimbledon champion in 77 years. He did that and hasn’t been the same since. A back injury required surgery, and he hasn’t seemed as mentally sharp this season.
David Ferrer: The Spaniard is always in the mix and reached at least the quarters in 13 events this year, including the final at Cincinnati. But can he outlast Federer and Djokovic?
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Like Ferrer, Tsonga can give the top players fits. He won in Toronto, but he hasn’t been able to go all the way at a major.
Others to watch: Grigor Dmitrov, Tomas Berdych, Milos Raonic.
Serena Williams: The two-time defending champion is seeking her 18th Grand Slam title and won titles in Stanford and Cincinnati, but she hasn’t reached the quarterfinals at a major this year. Still, at 32 years old, she remains the woman to beat.
Maria Sharapova: She won the U.S. Open in 2006, won the French Open this year and is a fierce competitor who should never be counted out.
Victoria Azarenka: Anyone who has won the Australian Open twice must be taken seriously in New York. Foot injuries have slowed her down this season, but she’s eager to make a comeback.
Eugenie Bouchard: The 20-year-old from Canada is a rising star who reached the semis at all three majors this year. Will she make her big breakthrough?
Simona Halep: She has skyrocketed up the rankings and won eight tournaments in the past year and a half. She reached the final of this year’s French Open and has the second-most points on the WTA Tour this season.
Others to watch: Venus Williams, Petra Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Ana Ivanovic.