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Roger Federer proved his point – he just didn’t win it

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

Fans of Roger Federer will note that if Federer had won one point against Novak Djokovic in 2011 (New York) and 2019 (Wimbledon), it would be 21-14. Instead it is 20-16.

IT, of course, is the all-time major singles Open Era championship count in men’s tennis.

One point at the U.S. Open. One point at Wimbledon. Federer could be seven majors ahead of Djokovic. Instead, it is only four.

You can do more math and realize that Djokovic likely has several more years of tennis ahead of him than Federer does. With the ATPNextGen not being ready to stand in the way, Federer could get one or two more majors.

Djokovic could get six or eight. 21-14 or 20-16? Pretty big difference.

Two points — one eight years ago, one this past Sunday on Centre Court — carry a lot of weight.

We can all agree on this point: Fans around the world would view these players differently if those two points had gone the other way. The same goes for the two break points Djokovic saved against Rafael Nadal at 7-7, 15-40 in the fifth set last year. (Nadal obviously would have needed to serve out that match at 8-7, much as Federer needed to do this Sunday, and didn’t. The point remains.)

Is it fair? Is it right? Those are pretty heavy questions, now or any time. The notion that one or two points transform memories and perceptions is a weighty statement to absorb…

but it’s real.

It is true in various sports.

The Seattle Seahawks were one yard from beating the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl four years ago. They didn’t make that last yard, though. Everyone’s memory of that game and those teams changed permanently based on Seattle’s failure to get that one yard.

The Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz were one defensive stop from forcing Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls into a Game 7 of the NBA Finals, five years apart, in 1993 and 1998… but they didn’t get that one stop. We think about Jordan differently as a result. Jordan won his six NBA titles without being taken to a Game 7 in the Finals. That adds to his legend.

Think of all the major golf championships decided by a putt which barely dropped in the hole or barely lipped out. Dozens if not hundreds of men have watched their professional careers change because of millimeters.

I don’t know if it’s fair or right… but it’s real: Careers, reputations, records and histories change because of the slightest of margins.

So, what do you do when you’re Roger Federer?

You are the owner of eight Wimbledons and 20 majors. You are the man who has led a charmed life and has a big, happy family, and receives abundant love from crowds everywhere.

You are the man who continues to play tremendous tennis one month short of turning 38.

You are the man who came within one point of beating Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in consecutive matches to win a ninth Wimbledon title.

You are the man who is still easily one of the three best male tennis players in the world at a time when other guys of similar age — Feliciano Lopez, David Ferrer, and Ivo Karlovic — are either a lot less successful or fully retired.

Jimmy Connors was 39 when he made that one amazing run at the 1991 U.S. Open. That 1991 Open was his best tournament of the year. One could say that tournament WAS his year.

Federer on the doorstep of 38 is much less like a fading Connors and much more like Ken Rosewall, who still went strong at age 39, making both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals in 1974. There were plenty of really strong players on tour in 1974, so Rosewall wasn’t beating chumps. He was beating legitimately great players to make those major finals.

Yet, Federer is going toe-to-toe not just with any great players, but the other two players who have set a standard as high as his. Federer, who put down the marker for major-tournament and overall tennis excellence in 2004, doesn’t take the court consciously trying to protect his reputation or identity. He doesn’t say that. I don’t think anyone would say he inwardly thinks that.

He isn’t playing for reputation or legacy HIMSELF. That’s not his goal or aspiration. We can say that each new match and each new major might affect that reputation and legacy; THAT point might be true. Yet, Federer plays to win championships. He plays because he still can. He plays because he still can play at a high level. He plays because he is head-over-heels in love with tennis.

We who cover tennis professionally are left to wonder how Sunday’s final against Novak Djokovic changes Federer, or how it might affect Federer. Is there an objective “right” answer? The math is the objective part: 20-16 instead of 21-15 (and instead of 21-14, had Federer won one more point at the 2011 U.S. Open).

In terms of the discussion beyond the numbers, everyone will have a different opinion.

What is worth saying, and what is worth tossing to the side?

It is not an easy discussion. I can only speak for myself, not anyone else, knowing that plenty of people will disagree.

Here’s what I think about Federer after this match:

First: He has lost 6 match points to Djokovic in major semifinals or finals (the other two being in the 2010 U.S. Open semifinals). Of those match points, I don’t see a single point he SHOULD have won. Oh, he COULD have won a few of them, but none were points he SHOULD have won.

Match point No. 2 in 2011 was a shot which hit the tape and bounced wide. The shot, if Federer had made it, MIGHT have given him a winning position, but Djokovic appeared to be on track to the ball, so “SHOULD” really doesn’t apply.

On the two match points in 2010, Djokovic played well and bravely. Moreover, if you recall that game late in the fifth set, Djokovic made a few errors to get to 15-40. It made all the sense in the world for Federer to make Djokovic play. Fed did. Djokovic was good enough. Federer never got a short, attackable ball in those rallies — some neutral balls, yes, but nothing he easily should have swept away for a winner or a setup of an overhead or easy volley.

On championship point No. 2 on Sunday — 40-30 at 8-7 — Federer COULD have put a little more mustard on his approach shot. He didn’t get the depth or low bounce he wanted, and he came to the net without a convincing-enough shot. He COULD have done a little better, but it never got the point where Federer SHOULD have won it.

It is to Djokovic’s great credit that he won all six of those match points against Federer. That should be the main focus here. If Federer fans can have a regret — in my opinion — it is simply that Federer was unable to find a big serve to the corners of the service box on his match points in both 2011 and 2019. On none of those four service points did Federer hit his target on serve. Once again, Djokovic prevailed by the slightest of margins.

This brings me back to Federer’s semifinal against Nadal on Friday.

Federer lost a point he truly SHOULD have won: 5-4, 30-30, fourth set. He was standing at the net with a putaway ball. Then he had an overhead to hit and shanked it. THAT is a point Federer won; he instead lost it. Had Federer lost the next point to get broken for 5-5, he could have allowed that match to get away, and we would all be perceiving Federer differently. Yet, he won the subsequent break point and escaped. As a result, we view Federer in one way, not another.

The close losses in Federer’s career — 9-7 in the fifth set of another Wimbledon final, in 2008; the two Djokvoic U.S. Open semifinals; the 2005 Australian Open semifinal in which he had a match point against Marat Safin; the 2009 U.S. Open final against Juan Martin del Potro, and a few others — are memorable not only because the stakes were so high, but because Federer has come through tough situations so many times.

Are these close Federer losses FEATURES of his career, or ABERRATIONS?

The complicated and unsatisfying answer: both.

Federer at the majors this decade (2010-2019) reminds me of the New York Yankees from 1954 through 1964.

The Yankees won the World Series (the championship of professional baseball in the United States) every year but one from 1947 through 1953. They remained a fixture in the World Series even as their legendary players aged, but someway and somehow, the World Series they always seemed to win started slipping through their fingers — not all the time, but some of the time. The Yankees lost Game 7 of the 1955 World Series (to the Brooklyn Dodgers) at home. They lost Game 7 of the 1957 World Series to the Milwaukee Braves at home. They blew a late lead in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates. (If you look at the box scores from those seven games in 1960, you will see a World Series which eerily paralleled Sunday’s 2019 Wimbledon men’s final.) The Yankees lost Game 7 of one more World Series in 1964, to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Did the Yankees somehow get “worse”? If we are focused solely on finishing in second place rather than first, yes. If we are focusing on longevity, quality, consistency, remaining not merely relevant, but highly accomplished, nothing about the Yankees deteriorated. They carried their run as much as they possibly could before their superstars finally did age out in 1965.

Did they forget how to play, or did they simply lose the final (seventh) game in several different World Series? It is clearly the latter.

Federer’s amazing 20 majors and — somehow — his EQUALLY improbable match-point-up losses to Djokovic and others at majors is a remarkable contradiction and coexistence. It is, at the most granular and molecular level of sports, a failure.

Yet, it is also a resounding success, playing this well this long and not merely being good enough to NOT RETIRE, but being good enough to come one point from winning nine Wimbledons.

Many are saying this is Federer’s most painful loss. It is obviously in the conversation and in the top tier of the list.

To the extent that Federer had Wimbledon championship points and lost a match, sure, it is the most painful when viewed through that lens.

Yet, when viewed through other lenses, it is not nearly as painful:

A) Federer lost near 38, not in his prime the way he did to Nadal 11 years ago.

B) Federer made an epic comeback, only to be denied, in 2008. That stings in a way an always-close-but-never-in-control match does. (And no, Federer was never in full control of this match. Up a break at 8-7 in the fifth is not control; it’s a slight lead.)

C) Federer played a TON better in 2008 versus Nadal than on Sunday. Mistakes made in a match which never involved extraordinary tennis (good tennis, yes — the fifth set was a solid if imperfect set) are far easier to accept than mistakes in a match of the highest quality.

D) This is the sneaky reason why 2019 Wimbledon isn’t nearly as painful as 2008 Wimbledon for Federer: It has happened before. No, not the PRECISE detail about losing championship points; that’s obviously a new thing. I am more broadly referring to losing a match of over 4.5 hours against an elite opponent after being teasingly close to victory. Federer HAS been here before. In 2008, at Wimbledon, a place where he always expected to win at the time, Nadal beating Federer was a total ambush — not in the sense that Federer didn’t think it could happen, but in terms of the REALITY of losing hitting Federer like a ton of bricks.

Federer entered that 2008 Wimbledon final having lost only once at any non-Roland Garros major since July of 2005: That was 2008 in Australia, where he had mononucleosis and STILL made the semifinals. Federer outside of Roland Garros (where he made the finals three straight years from 2006-2008, but ran into the endgame on clay, Rafa) was a virtually untouchable player at that point in time. Losing to Rafa at Wimbledon was quite understandably a shattering moment.

This? It’s not an EASY match to digest for Federer, but hey: He has been here before.

We aren’t used to players matter-of-factly accepting that they lost Wimbledon after having championship point, but Federer has had practice losing to Djokovic from two match points up.

Is one more loss suddenly going to make him dive off a cliff?

There is pain here, but it is pain Federer has felt before. Some people will argue this dents his legacy and reputation. I think this elevates Djokovic’s reputation — specifically his knack for winning knife-edge matches more than Fedal — but I don’t see how it diminishes Fed.

One point matters a lot, but it can’t be allowed to matter more than it should.

No one knows the reality or wisdom of that statement better than Federer himself.

He proved a lot of points… just not every last one.

When you play as long and as well as he has, you won’t win every argument… or point.

I think there’s a part of all of us which can relate to that.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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