Welcome to the Veteran Open
Originally published on 10/09/15
Roger Federer is sleep-and-volleying his way back to the top.
The five-time US Open champion is back in the semi-finals for the 10th time in his storied career, having delivered a show-stopping 87-minute performance against Richard Gasquet – a display so dominant, he almost impressed himself.
“I mean, for a few years now I have tried to look at the big picture to hopefully still be playing at a high level at this age,” said Federer, 34, after the 6-3 6-3 6-1 win. “So in some ways I am not surprised I am playing as well as I am.
“I think I have worked on my game moving forward, have been able to take the ball earlier. I'm volleying better than I have the last 10 years. Now because my serving is working quite well, you put those two things together, and standing in on the return as well, I think has changed the dynamics a little bit.
“It's all about keeping yourself in shape and staying injury-free. And motivated, I guess.”
Federer is one of five players in their thirties among the eight semi-finalists at this US Open, an unprecedented number in the Open era. He will face 30-year-old compatriot Stan Wawrinka, guaranteeing that not only will a Swiss player feature in Sunday’s final, but a member of the old guard, too.
On the women’s side, three thirtysomethings have reached the last four in New York, as happened in 2013 and just once previously, at WImbledon in 1994. Serena Williams, a US Open semi-final stalwart since turning 30, is almost exactly a decade older than 23-year-old Simona Halep, who ousted Victoria Azarenka 6-3 4-6 6-4 to reach the last four at Flushing Meadows for the first time.
Italian duo Flavia Pennetta, 33, and Roberta Vinci, 32, raise the average age of the semi-finalists to 31. Together, they are the oldest quartet, male or female, to reach the semi-finals in New York in Open era history.
On the men’s side, Federer, Wawrinka, 28-year-old top seed Djokovic and defending champion Cilic, 26, average out at a month shy of 30. Only once has the average age of the men’s semi-finalists been higher at the US Open in the Open era – in 1973, when 38-year-old Ken Rosewall was up against Stan Smith, Jan Kodes and John Newcombe, all in their twenties.
Federer has not dropped a set through 10 matches since turning 34 in August. He unveiled a new secret weapon in Cincinnati, the SABR – Sneak Attack By Roger – but away from the court he has another: SIBR, or Stay In Bed, Roger.
“Sleeping has become quite important,” said Federer, who aims to get around nine to 10 hours per day, “because I believe it's really the sleep that gives you energy again down the road. That's why the next two days are very important for me in terms of sleeping.”
Wawrinka’s late career surge has been little short of extraordinary. Up until the 2013 French Open, he had reached just two Grand Slam quarterfinals. Since then, he has reached the quarters at nine of the next 11 majors, including runs to the 2014 Australian Open title and his French Open triumph in June. His quickfire 6-4 6-4 6-0 dismissal of Kevin Anderson fired him into his fifth major semi-final, and second in New York.
Stan’s secret: watch and learn.
“The reason why I improve so much the past few years it's also because I'm looking a lot what the top guys doing – Novak, Roger, Rafa,” Wawrinka said. “I always try to see why they are so good.
“I'm not trying to do what they are doing – I'm just trying to see how they improve, how they can play so well, how can they play so fast, how they can do the passing shot and everything.”
Many credit Williams’s sparse schedule, a trait that goes back to her junior days, for her dominance of the women’s tour as she approaches her 34th birthday this month. But another dimension is the myriad interests away from tennis that prevent her from burning out on tour.
“I call myself 'the hardest working woman in tennis' because I'm always between the fashion, between everything that I'm doing, it's always a lot,” Williams said before the tournament. Given what is on the line for the world No.1 over the next three days, experience counts for a lot, too.
“I know some matches I got through just on my experience alone,” she admitted as she prepares to face Vinci, the oldest first-time Grand Slam semi-finalist of the Open era. “Being experienced has really helped me a lot, helped me get through a lot of matches. It's helped me overcome a lot of things.”
Experience comes in many forms, as Vinci will attest. The former doubles world No.1 believes her late run to a major semi-final is just reward for a career of unwavering commitment.
“I'm not young, so probably my experience today help me a lot,” said Vinci, who beat Kristina Mladenovic in three arduous sets on Tuesday. “Kristina is a young player, so probably she find a little bit tension or something.
“Of course I think I'm at the end of my career, so my semi-final, first semi-final, it's incredible,” she added. “You know, when you work hard for a long time every single day, sometimes you have some periods down and try to come back. It's not always easy. But it's nice. I'm very proud of myself.”
“We are old, I know – I mean, old for tennis,” reasoned compatriot Pennetta, who faces Halep after upsetting Petra Kvitova 4-6 6-4 6-2 on Thursday. “For life we are young.
“Since the Olympic Games, I think, was a little bit of change of generation. But we are here. We still fight. We still enjoy what we did. I think this is important.”
The value of experience cannot be overstated in either draw – a fact that makes Friday’s men’s semi-finals, featuring four Grand Slam champions for the first time at a major since the 1995 US Open, all the more compelling.
“I just know that I can do it, for sure,” Wawrinka said. “I did twice. That's it.
“I think now we both nervous when we enter the court,” he added on the prospect of facing Federer, who he has beaten three times now, all on clay. “Before it was only me. I was nervous because I knew I wasn't at his level, for sure.”
With his wealth of experience, Federer does not expect to face nerves over the next couple of days.
“I feel like I see the matches as in isolation,” he explained. “I don't know if it's when I arrive at the tennis, when I go warm up, whatever it is, but that's a different world for me. You know, when I leave the grounds I feel like not I'm a different person, but like that's my other life I have.
“So I have two lives, and all the problems I might have, I feel like I drop them once I step on to the match court.”
Perspective: another gift that comes with age.