Roger Federer was not at his best in Thursday’s U.S. Open quarterfinal match against talented No. 20 seed Gael Monfils.
In pursuit of a sixth tournament win at Flushing Meadows and 18th Grand Slam title, Federer dropped the first two sets. Instead of wilting, he added another chapter to his amazing legacy, bouncing back in epic fashion to secure a five-set, 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 win.
Monfils hadn’t dropped a set at the 2014 U.S. Open entering Thursday’s prime-time showdown with King Roger—a rare feat during which the Frenchman played consistent, exceptional tennis.
That streak was still alive through two sets, but this tweet from Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch proved to be a prescient prediction:
Dan Wolken of USA Today reflected on the essence of Federer and his greatness:
When Monfils blew two match points on return while up 5-4 in the fourth set, he began a downward spiral. It saw him double-fault twice to lose the next game, culminating in a heartbreaking defeat in which the decisive set wasn’t even close.
Former Australian tennis professional player Paul McNamee pointed out how conditions shifted in Federer’s favor to a degree later in the night:
Mother Nature aside, it took an immense amount of mental toughness for Federer to pull this out against such a formidable opponent. The Wall Street Journal’s Tom Perrotta made a bold declaration—and a fitting one at that:
There has never been any doubt about Monfils’ potential, yet he has never quite realized it due to unconventional footwork, overly aggressive shots and a lack of fortitude in the biggest events.
That certainly hasn’t been the case in the Big Apple this year. ESPN Tennis’ snapshot captured the enigma that is Monfils—a player with an amazing ceiling who can never quite position himself to take the next step:
As much as Monfils rose to the occasion, Federer was not quite bringing his A-game in the early going, as Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated observed:
When the first set ended in a 6-4 decision for Monfils, the next frame didn’t start off well for Federer on serve, as he lost the game. USA Today’s Erik Gudris observed how Monfils’ athleticism gave Federer fits:
Monfils rolled to the quarters and played cleaner than he often does. In the second set, for example, an erratic Federer had 13 unforced errors to just nine winners, while Monfils smashed 10 winners with four unforced errors.
Chris Chase of USA Today noted how tall the task was for Federer to mount a rally:
But if Federer could just get under Monfils’ skin a little bit, there was a chance to will his way to the semifinals.
Although Monfils was relentless, worked fast on serve and kept Federer off balance and out of rhythm from the start, the living legend gained confidence as the match progressed.
Stuart Fraser of the Daily Mail pointed out this trend:
Before the match, Federer hinted at his health being a key factor in not losing faith in his abilities, per The Associated Press’ Howard Fendrich:
Because of the issues I had last year, I had to be unbelievably careful what I did. We had to cut back on a few things I usually would do, but were scared to do. That was not what I wanted to do. Sometimes if that’s what it is and it means don’t run on the treadmill or don’t do jumps or whatever it is, well, there’s other ways you can train that. I’m happy that basically today I can do whatever and I don’t have any more setbacks.
Now I have my confidence back. It’s as simple as that.
On Federer’s third break chance at 1-1 in the fourth set, a Monfils forehand went long, swinging all the momentum back in Federer’s favor. Had he failed to capitalize, Monfils may have coasted and gone on to close the deal in far easier fashion.
Monfils fought to put Federer down, 0-30, in the very next game and broke right back. That was the theme of the evening, because nothing came easy for the aging five-time U.S. Open champion.
Still, there was no need to write Federer off amid his comeback attempt, as Grantland’s Rembert Browne suggested:
The seesaw tone continued when Federer pushed Monfils, before the underdog pulled out two aces to get a clutch hold. That exact same outcome resulted when Federer again pushed to deuce, yet Monfils aced twice more to go up, 4-3.
The troubles Monfils had holding serve persisted when Federer pushed him to deuce for a third straight time at 4-4. Another two huge serves showed Monfils was not to be intimidated. Tennis.com’s Steve Tignor outlined Federer’s last opportunity to really push for a fifth set before the insanely intense next game:
When he broke to open the fifth, it was almost a formality for Federer to finish the job.
Federer will play Marin Cilic in the semifinals. The No. 14 seed, Cilic has done well just to get to this point. After the epic that unfolded on Thursday night, the fact that Cilic is in his second Grand Slam semifinal may not matter quite as much as the fatigue Federer will be feeling.
Based on the quality of tennis on display Thursday, though, Federer ought to be ready to progress on to the final over an inexperienced impending adversary.
Going into this match, it appeared that Federer was on a collision course with No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic to meet in the final. It would be a rematch of the five-set Wimbledon thriller. After much suspense, courtesy of the mostly magnificent Monfils, the Djokovic-Federer showdown seems imminent again.