How rain saved the day for Federer

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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.

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