How rain saved the day for Federer


NEW YORK -- When rain interrupted play for the first time this fortnight, the failsafe back-up plan was already in place.

Sunday afternoon, while the bustle of the US Open gave way to an extended patch of intense rain, viewers at home were treated to a delightful display of tennis nostalgia.

This time, CBS dredged up its decade-old archives to show the 2004 final between Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt. The long and short of that match was that it was short. Federer dissected -- perhaps more fittingly, humiliated -- his more experienced Aussie mate for three hasty sets, 6-0, 7-6 (3), 6-0 to win the US Open.

It was a lopsided match for the ages, the first two-bagel final here at the Open since 1884. But it was the way Federer moved in that match. Oh, the way he moved. Grace, power and precision might be an understatement. That footwork has led Federer to 17 Grand Slam titles, more than anyone in the history of the men's game.

Ten years have passed, and the conventional wisdom by analysts and discerning fans suggests the mighty Fed has lost a step. And given his two-year gap since most recently winning a major, there could be something to that. But you wouldn't have known that Sunday night. A snippet:

At 1-all in the second set, Federer's opponent, the artful Marcel Granollers, sliced a sweet little crosscourt backhand seemingly out of Federer's range. Federer charged the net violently in a very Rafael Nadal-like way, scooped the ball just milliliters before the double bounce and, impossibly, flicked a backhand crosscourt for the winner.

It sent the half-packed Arthur Ashe stadium into a frenzy. Until that point, Federer had looked, well, his age, struggling to match Granollers' crafty game of cat and mouse. The Spaniard continually dropped and lopped Federer in an attempt to unravel the cool Swiss.

It worked until that point. Federer woke up and finished the match in swift fashion, 4-6, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1.

"I think when you keep yourself in shape and train the right way, that's how you do it," Federer said afterward. "Then actually it's not such a surprise for yourself. But I'm clearly happy about it because it's become a game of movement. If you don't move very well you can't dig out a few shots. It's just not going to work out in the long run."

Federer now moves on to the fourth round, where another Spaniard, Roberto Bautista Agut, awaits. 

Until that game-changing moment, Federer played uncharacteristically shaky. His service rhythm had all but disappeared and he was broken twice. According to our crack research squad, this was only the ninth time this entire season Federer lost the first set.

But the reality was that his languid start only delayed the inevitable. Actually, the 90-minute weather-induced postponement was the best thing that could have happened to Federer. Obviously, he needed a respite to work out whatever was going on in the opening set. But Federer, for those of you who didn't know, is a night owl of sorts. He came into the match with a 26-1 career night record here at the Open and left with, you guessed it, a 27-1 record.

"Well, I definitely I guess played better after that," Federer said. "But then again, the first seven games all happened very quickly. I think the biggest difference was the wind. It was quite windy when we got out. When we came back, basically it was gone. It also felt quite different because the wind has that effect of air-conditioning a little bit for the players; whereas when it's not windy you really feel the humidity and the heat. So I think that was a big change. The court might have played a little bit slower because of it cooling off from the rain."

Federer, soaked enough that it looked like he had just freestyled the East River, won his 70th career match at the US Open, but it's really about what he's doing this season.

He's now 12-1 in his past 13 matches and very much looking like the player who will emerge from his half of the draw. Federer has already reached a tour-best eight finals and leads the ATP with 53 match wins.

And he owes it all to his feet.  

"Yeah, it's been good for a while now," Federer said. "I think especially now it's been really excellent the last three matches here at the US Open. I feel very explosive, quick. The coordination is there, as well. I feel like I've gotten used to the hard courts by now. It's really working well."

So well, in fact, that some might think it's 2004 all over again.