Roger Federer has lived on the wrong side of an injury on several occasions. The last four years, a physical limitation of some kind has interfered with his ability to win the U.S. Open.
Yet, these unfortunate encounters with the strain of playing tennis (reminders that his playing style offers no immunization from pain and discomfort) also remind us of the times he overcame that pain.
Those reminders magnify what Grigor Dimitrov did on Tuesday in New York.
The situation from Federer’s past which most closely paralleled his 2019 U.S. Open quarterfinal was the 2017 Australian Open semifinals against Stan Wawrinka.
Yes, many people will tell you that Federer’s medical timeout after the fourth set against Wawrinka — unlike the one he took versus Dimitrov, given his clear distress in the fifth set on Tuesday — was tactical. Federer in the fifth set versus Stan two and a half years ago was not visibly impaired.
Does this mean Federer WASN’T in fact impaired? That is a murky question which invites a firestorm of debate. I would completely understand and accept any answer which casts doubt on Federer’s level of impairment in January of 2017. I am not here to argue whether an athlete was injured. I can readily acknowledge skepticism in these contexts.
However, what everyone in tennis can agree on — what is far less ambiguous than a player’s motives when taking a medical timeout, or a player’s actual level of pain or discomfort (which remains less than fully knowable for anyone on the outside looking in) — is this:
Federer really needed the two days off before the 2017 Australian Open final.
Federer might have been truly “injured,” or (and this reminds us why injuries are so hard to evaluate and calibrate in sports) he might merely have been worn down, but after the half-year layoff which shut down his 2016 season following Wimbledon, Federer played a ton of tennis in Australia.
A long period of inactivity was followed by a short burst of tennis. Federer labored through his first-round match in Melbourne, remained less than sharp in round two, but played his way into the tournament and overcame two five-set tests against high-level players — Kei Nishikori in round four and Wawrinka in the semifinals — before meeting Rafael Nadal in the final.
Dimitrov — Federer’s conqueror on Tuesday — certainly helped Federer’s cause in that 2017 Australian Open final by making Nadal work five hours to beat him in the other semifinal. Yet, if we were to explain why Federer had enough in the tank to beat Rafa in that final, the bigger reason was not Dimitrov’s extended battle with Nadal.
It was the fact that Federer got two full days off before the final, under the Australian Open schedule which gives semifinalists different amounts of rest time before the final. Federer happened to be in the half of the draw with a Thursday semifinal. Rafa played the Friday semifinal.
Federer — at this 2019 U.S. Open — once again arrived at a situation in which he would have had two full days to recover from an impairment. This time, he couldn’t do it, but the framework of his situation was similar.
One also can’t forget a separate situation in which Federer faced fears connected to physical impairment, fought through them, and eventually won a major: 2012 Wimbledon.
Remember Federer going off court at 6-5 down in the first set to Xavier Malisse? People thought his Wimbledon was Wimble-DONE at that moment, and that if he lost the first set, he might call it quits.
What magnifies Dimitrov here — not just in terms of his 2019 U.S. Open, which continues into the semifinals, but in relationship to Federer’s escapes in the past at major tournaments — is that Dimitrov held himself together, unlike other players who wilted when given an opportunity against the Swiss.
Malisse faltered in his 6-5 service game and in the first-set tiebreaker in 2012. Two days later, Mikhail Youzhny offered very little resistance in the Wimbledon quarterfinals to Federer, who was wearing a compression undershirt to guard against a flare-up of his back problem.
Federer getting that low-stress quarterfinal against Youzhny played a role in enabling him to gain strength and be ready for the semifinal-and-final finishing kick against Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
Similarly, at the 2017 Australian Open, Federer — in the midst of beating a bunch of high-end players (Tomas Berdych in round three, Kei in round four, Stan in the semis, Rafa in the final) — needed a low-strain quarterfinal against Mischa Zverev to smooth the path toward a title. Had Federer played a five-set quarterfinal, it is doubtful he would have had enough fuel to go all the way.
Grigor Dimitrov stood firm in ways other past Federer opponents did not. Now Dimitrov returns to a major semifinal for the first time since that 2017 Australian Open.
Time is a flat circle. Dimitrov has completed that circle in a very meaningful way.