Federer is better, you know, once again

NEW YORK – It’s just possible that Roger Federer might have won more public love from a single defeat – that epic Wimbledon final – than he won from four entire years of incomprehensible dominance.

Once he arrived here for the U.S. Open, his winking wit seemed to return, and he said strangers wished him back to No. 1 from his newfound settlement at No. 2 behind Rafael Nadal. The 27-year-old man from one of the world’s most un-New York places – the staid Basel, Switzerland – repeatedly said he felt like a New Yorker.

So as the grand arc of Federer’s celestial tennis career resumed its upward tack Monday evening, the Arthur Ashe Stadium DJ played “Still The One,” and Federer soon said puckishly, “It’s great, the guy putting on the music being my fan, right?”

He had summoned much of his vast repertoire and sapped the drama out of a U.S. Open final and his 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 victory over the first-time Grand Slam finalist Andy Murray of Scotland loosed a barrage of edits to the tennis record books.

It made Federer the first player with five consecutive U.S. Open titles since Bill Tilden won six from 1920-25. It made Federer the first player to win five consecutive titles at two different Grand Slam tournaments because he won five straight Wimbledon titles between 2003 and 2007. It gave Federer 13 Grand Slam titles, halving his deficit behind Pete Sampras’ record 14. It gave Federer 34 straight wins in Flushing Meadows, 35 if you count a walkover in the fourth round of the 2004 tournament.

Perhaps most poignantly, though, it gave Federer one Grand Slam title in 2008 that might quickly climb his rankings of most cherished, and it made him a de facto New Yorker.

“It’s incredible the amount of people here in New York that just come up to me and recognize me now and sort of wish me luck, cab drivers screaming out I’m still the guy, and, `You can do it.’ It’s great, you know.

“I mean, I really feel like this city has really warmed up to me, and so have I to them. So this is huge victory for me, and, you know, enjoying it with 23,000 people in the stadium was an unbelievable feeling today.”

The deeply stressful U.S. Open as tennis salve: Who knew?

Battling mononucleosis but not mentioning it, Federer lost an Australian Open semifinal to Novak Djokovic in three sets. Come Roland Garros in June, he took a blasting so uncommon in a French Open final against Rafael Nadal that he won only four games and had Paris feeling sorry for him. At Wimbledon, Nadal edged Federer in a storybook Wimbledon final that went five hours and five sets and 9-7 in the fifth.

“I think the French Open loss was brutal, but I got over that one pretty easily, played great on the grass, and had a really tough loss at Wimbledon which, you know, I was proud to be part of such a great match, but at the same time, you know, it just sort of made me sad, you know, not having won that great epic match. Maybe I was always dreaming about it and not winning it, you know.

“I was always positive, you know.”

All along, as he lost 12 different matches to nine different players and struggled in the hardcourt season, losing an Olympic quarterfinal to James Blake, he dealt with the world’s acknowledgement of his fresh imperfections while winning only two titles before the U.S. Open.

The U.S. Open cured that, even if he still doesn’t feel he’s moving as he once did.

So after a frenetic final point on which Federer, 27, menaced at the net and Murray, 21, scampered around using his uncommon court coverage, and finally Federer hit an overhead that Murray couldn’t quite squeeze back, Federer sank to his knees and rolled around on the New York concrete.

“This is a very special moment in my career,” he said immediately afterward.

And so after a champagne celebration in the locker room with his family and his longtime companion, Mirka, Federer’s father Robert emerged from the locker room and said, “I always said if he would just win one of four, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, the Olympics, and the U.S. Open. So actually he won the U.S. Open. For me it’s success.”

New York somehow has meshed so well with Federer’s pristine demeanor that he has not lost here since the fourth round of 2003, when one then-nemesis David Nalbandian beat him in four sets and Federer said, “I’ve never felt that I’ve had a great day playing against him.”

Well, his 34th straight U.S. Open victory – and the streak includes a mauling of Nalbandian – began much as had his maestro’s semifinal win over Djokovic. Federer swept through the first set like some gorgeous storm, knocking in 76 percent of his first serves and allowing Murray only five points in four return games.

When Murray, Nadal’s conqueror in the semifinal, mounted resistance in the second set, reeling off seven straight points on Federer’s serve at one juncture, the brand-new No. 4 player in the world almost went a service break ahead. Midway through a 14-shot rally at 15-40 on Federer’s serve in the 2-2 game, Federer creamed a forehand long, but the linesperson didn’t see it even though the Hawk-Eye technology did.

Murray continued playing, Federer took the point and the game, and they stayed on serve until Murray served at 5-6 to try to stay in the set. He got no points in that game as Federer camped out around the net and wound up hitting four winners for the set, then yelled out joyously, sensing that his resurgence might have neared completion, as soon he would call losing the No. 1 ranking but then winning a U.S. Open “the best scenario ever.”

One more brilliant, perfunctory set, and his slightly muddled year had one heck of a New York garnish.