The crowd waiting to get into Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday night had no idea what they were about to witness.
It was supposed to be a Roger Federer pro forma victory over No. 55-ranked John Millman of Australia, setting up the highly-anticipated Federer – Novak Djokovic clash in the quarter-finals Wednesday night.
Jimmy Connors, the 65-year-old American who won the US Open five times on three different surfaces – grass, clay and hard courts – in the 1970s and 1980s, used to say about the unknowns of two players meeting in a tennis match – “that’s why they put up the net.”
On a very humid (75 per cent) night in Flushing Meadows, his words rung true when it all came crashing down for Federer. The dogged Millman, sensing Federer’s vulnerability, played a terrific match to beat him 3-6, 7-5, 7-6(7), 7-6(3).
There were plenty of chances for Federer to put away Millman, but on a night with his energy sapping he just couldn’t deliver the knock-out blow.
For Federer fans it was an excruciating spectacle to watch – one that ended just before 1 a.m. Their man seemed to battle himself as much as Millman on a night when, sweat-drenched, he seemed stuck in quicksand and gradually sinking deeper. He was never deeper than when he committed six unforced errors in a row after taking a 1-0 lead in the final set tiebreak – and that included consecutive double faults trailing 2-1.
“I just thought it was very hot tonight,” said the 20-time Grand Slam champion. “(It) was just one of those nights where I guess I felt I couldn’t get air. There was no circulation at all. I don’t know, for some reason I just struggled in the conditions tonight. It’s one of the first times it’s happened to me.
“It’s uncomfortable. Clearly (you) just keep on sweating more and more and more and more as the match goes on. You lose energy as it goes by.
“But John was able to deal with it better. He maybe comes from one of the most humid places on earth, Brisbane. I knew I was in for a tough one. Maybe when you feel like that, as well, you start missing chances, and I had those. That was disappointing.”
The numbers were not flattering for Federer – 65 winners (many on volleys at the net as he tried to shorten points) and 76 unforced errors compared to 47 winners and 28 unforced errors for Millman.
A 29-year-old Aussie, Millman is the epitome of the hard-working, never-say-die athlete who keeps plugging away and gets his reward. Exactly a year ago he was ranked No. 235. Last month he reached a career-high No. 49.
“In all honesty, Roger is a hero of mine,” said Millman, who trained in Switzerland with Federer in June before the grass-court season. “I look up to him. I felt a little bit guilty today because he didn’t have his best day, and that’s for sure. I know that. I’m very aware he didn’t have a great day at the office. Probably to beat him I needed him to have an off day and I needed to have a decent, good day.”
Federer, the ultimate professional, has always seemed to have all bases covered in terms of preparation. But at age 37 he was exposed on Monday as a weary mere mortal. He suggested the new roof on Ashe Stadium (since 2016) decreased air circulation and had a stifling effect.
A decade has passed since his last victory at the US Open in 2008 – at the end of five titles in a row.
There are concerning signs because Federer has now been eliminated at his past two Grand Slam events – Wimbledon and the US Open – after being in winning positions. He had a match point for a straight-sets win over Kevin Anderson in the Wimbledon quarter-finals two months ago before losing and on Monday he had opportunities to put Millman away with two set points in the second set and one in the third.
At his media conference, he said of his plans, “move on and take a rest. I’m happy I’m getting a rest now. Then I come back for the Laver Cup (September 21-23 in Chicago) and hopefully finish the year strong.”
It was probably just a throw-away line after an exasperating night, but it was still worrisome for Federer diehards to hear him say about one forgettable outing in a long and glorious career, “look at some point also I was just happy that the match was over, I guess.”
Leylah Annie Fernandez, who turns 16 on Thursday, will play a second-round junior girls singles match on Tuesday – taking on 17-year-old Mylene Halemal of France.
Fernandez, from Laval, Que., and partner Manon Leonard of France were beaten in their opening-round doubles match on Monday – losing 6-4, 6-7(2), [10-8] to the American pairing of Chloe Beck and Emma Navarro.
A semi-finalist in the French Open juniors in June, Fernandez is seeded No. 8 in the girls event at Flushing Meadows.
THE US OPEN BOULEVARD
Just past the east entrance to the Billie Jean King United States Tennis Association Tennis Center is a walkway that leads toward the main Arthur Ashe Stadium.
There are plaques along the ‘Avenue of Aces’ with the names of donors written on them. Interspersed with those plaques are special plaques with embossed tennis balls – like the one below for Steffi Graf.
Take another six steps further toward Ashe Stadium and you will see similar plaque with the name of…Andre Agassi on it.
There’s a terrace outside the US Open media center where TV rights holders often do interviews with players and ex-players. On Monday, Boris Becker, the six-time Grand Slam champion who won the US Open in 1989, was being interviewed by German television. Crowded in an adjacent restricted area, there was a curious gathering of gawkers taking pictures of the legendary 50-year-old German.
Daniela Hantuchova, the retired Slovak player who once ranked as high as No. 5 (2003), has been prominent on the television side of the 2018 US Open. Now aged 35 and working on Amazon Prime’s coverage along with other networks, she has received rave reviews for both her on-air presentation and her knowledge of the sport.
The flora and fauna around Times Square in Manhattan has always been interesting and diversified. This picture shows a unique placement for the letters ‘N’ and ‘Y.’ We are informed that this is not an unfamiliar sight in New York City.
(Feature picture: Mauricio Paiz)