It certainly wasn’t dull. That Roger Federer on Thursday advanced to the third round of the U.S. Open for the 17th time in his 17 career appearances at Flushing Meadows wasn’t exactly news. That he remained unbeaten in 17 matches against Russian veteran Mikhail Youzhny, in duels dating to 2000, was no surprise.
But, for the second time in this year’s Open, Federer was forced to demonstrate his tennis impression of The Great Houdini. Because, at the end of the third set, Youzhny figuratively had Federer handcuffed, straitjacketed and locked in an underwater cage.
That made the eventual 6-1, 6-7 (3), 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 Federer victory hardly routine. And it came two days after Federer needed five sets to free himself of 19-year-old Frances Tiafoe. In Federer’s 71 major tournaments, this was the first time he was pushed to five sets in each of his first- and second-round matches. Not a problem, he insisted.
“I think because you’re on a high, you’re thrilled that you got through, you don’t look at the negative,” Federer said. “At least, I don’t. I might feel more tired than I normally would going into the third round, but that’s OK.”
After losing the second-set tiebreaker that allowed Youzhny to level the match, Federer spent most of the third sailing shots long and wide, as if he were working with a court 80-by-30 feet instead of the actual 78-by-27.
Then, with the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd pleading for Federer to somehow navigate a breakout, Youzhny began to cramp and netted consecutive backhands to lose his serve in the fourth game of the fourth set.
Both the fans and Federer pounced, and the quality of play suddenly lifted, though Youzhny held his ground and took back the service break in the ninth game. That immediately was wiped out when Youhnzy lost serve — and the set — in the next game.
Youzhny said he might not have fully recovered having to play on consecutive days, after rain pushed his Tuesday match to Wednesday. He smiled. “But I can’t change the weather.” (Federer’s Tuesday match went on under the Ashe roof.)
The previous 16 losses to Federer were not on his mind, Youzhny said, instead reasoning, “I have one more chance to play against the best player in the world. He’s a man. He’s not a god. He can play better, he can play worse.”
Serving at 1-1 in the fifth, Federer lifted a lob over the charging Youzhny, who leaped in a vain effort to play it, then crumpled to the ground, sat for moments and clutched his right hamstring.
He resumed play with a slight limp, and it didn’t help him that the subsequent game took 17 points before he finally held serve. That was his last stand; Federer reeled off the last four games.
“Probably,” Federer said, “it helps me that I have been there” [in tight situations] so much. I find my way. I don’t panic. I think the point-to-point mentality helps me a lot. Not thinking too far ahead.”
Also, it makes for a good show.