Heading into the United States Open, longtime habitues of the sport wondered whether they would finally get to see a match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at Flushing Meadows. For all the protracted success of the two living legends, they hadn’t yet met under the klieg lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium — not at any stage, and certainly not for the title. Because of one reason or another (but mostly due to fellow Big Three stalwart Novak Djokovic), they hadn’t yet gone head to head in the last tournament on the Grand Slam rota.
Still, fans hoped for what they felt was a long-delayed first. Never mind that Djokovic remained a threat to scuttle their projection; he was on Federer’s bracket, and, as the top seed, seen to beat the 20-time major champion in the semifinals, and then Nadal, en route to successfully defending his title. After all, tennis is tennis, subject to the vagaries of biorhythms and playing conditions. And, true enough, conventional wisdom was proven wrong when he wound up retiring from his fourth-round match against Stanislas Wawrinka due to an ailing left shoulder.
To the delight of casual observers, the dream final suddenly turned from possibility to likelihood. Still, it required the protagonists to do their part. And, as fate would have it, Federer failed to fulfill his end of the bargain. Yesterday, he bowed in five sets to unseeded Grigor Dimitrov, the outcome a shock to all and sundry given his outstanding play of late. Meanwhile, the World Number 78 didn’t look up to the challenge, having lost seven of eight matches prior to the US Open and all seven meetings against him (during which he claimed 16 of 18 sets).
For a while there, Federer seemed on his way to victory, leading two sets to one despite seeming less than sharp. Through the fourth set, however, he appeared to be ailing from a bad back — and to a point where he needed to take a medical timeout after losing it 4-6. His time with the trainer didn’t help, though; he took only two games the rest of the way. As Dimitrov noted in the aftermath, “My main goal was to stay on the court as long as possible. At the end, for sure, he was not 100 per cent. It’s best of five and anything can happen.”
Well, that “anything” did happen. Federer is out, joining Djokovic in the sidelines. And, presumably, Nadal will take advantage of the situation. He’s now an overwhelming favorite to collect his second major of the year and fourth US Open crown of his career. First things first, though. Before he trades groundstrokes with a first-time finalist, he would have to take care of business. He’s certainly primed to do so, what with a second-round walkover helping him and the staggered second-week schedule at Flushing Meadows slated to keep him fresh. His battle with his friend at Arthur Ashe Stadium can happen next year. In the meantime, the welcome mat for his podium appearance has been spread, and he needs to clear his path to it.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.