Two nights ago, Juan Martin del Potro dashed hopes for a first-ever U.S. Open meeting between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. His four-set quarterfinal victory over Federer deprived the Open of its most eagerly anticipated showdown and torpedoed what may have been our last, best chance of seeing Federer and Nadal face off in New York. It is a good thing for del Potro that he is such an adored figure, because he sure played the spoiler Wednesday night.
However, at least one Federer dream was realized at this year’s Open: my kids finally got to see him play live. A few years ago, I promised James and Ava that they would experience a Federer match in person before he retired. It took longer than I anticipated and involved a little more frustration and stress than I would have preferred, but last Thursday afternoon, I finally delivered on that vow. History will not recall Federer’s second-round win over Mikhail Youzhny as being among his finest performances. But for strictly personal reasons, it is the Federer match that I will cherish the most.
James is 16, Ava 12, and because their dad is a tennis obsessive who also writes about tennis, Federer has been a constant presence in their lives. During their early years, I would commandeer the television in the family room whenever Federer was on. I’d narrate his matches for them—they didn’t request narration, I just offered it—and instruct them in the finer points of Federer’s game. “Watch his feet,” I would implore them. “Don’t watch the ball, watch his feet!” They’d look at me quizzically, as if to say, “What’s wrong with you, dude?” and go back to playing with their trucks and dolls. My hope was that watching Federer play might pique their interest in tennis. I ultimately went one for two: Ava took up tennis, but James was drawn to basketball. Both became ardent Federer fans, however, and as they got older and as he got older, I decided—I can’t recall exactly when or where—that it was imperative that they see him play live.
They first saw him in person a few years ago, at the Open. Unfortunately, he was not playing that day, so they only saw him on the practice court. (They did get to watch Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams in back-to-back matches on Ashe, which wasn’t so bad). Little did we know that our simple desire to see a Federer match en famille would soon become an odyssey. In March of last year, Federer, coming off the knee injury he had suffered in Australia, announced that he would be returning to competition at the Miami Open, and it just so happened that we were going to be on vacation in Florida at that time. Better yet, Federer drew—how’s this for ironic?—del Potro for his opening match. As soon as the match time was posted, I scooped up some tickets. I couldn’t believe our good fortune.
A few days later, James, Ava, my father, and I made the pilgrimage to Key Biscayne. A few minutes after we walked through the gates, Federer came strolling by on his way to the practice court—confirmation, as it were, that this bucket-list item was about to be crossed over. An hour or so later, we were in our seats when word began to circulate that Federer had withdrawn because of a stomach virus. As sick as he might have felt, I am pretty sure I felt even sicker at that moment. I tried to put the best face on the situation—“Hey, at least we got to see him, and there are plenty of other great players around!”—but there was no denying that our day had taken a decidedly crappy turn. And it got worse: in all my excitement over the Federer-del Potro match, I had forgotten to put sunscreen on James and Ava. When we met my wife for dinner and I showed up with two charbroiled kids, the conversation was not a happy one.
I figured our next chance to see Federer would be at the U.S. Open later that year. But he ended his 2016 season after losing in the semifinals at Wimbledon in July, saying that his knee needed more time to heal. Like many people, I wondered if Federer was finished, and I feared that James and Ava would now never get to see him play. Fortunately, Federer wasn’t done, and after he won the Australian Open in January, I resolved that if he made it to New York, James and Ava would be in the stands for one of his matches. But scoring Federer tickets in this of all years was going to be a challenge. New York’s Federer-o-philia was certain to be at maximum strength. Moreover, with two sessions each day and each day’s order of play usually announced less than 24 hours in advance, the Open does not make it easy to cherry-pick matches. But I was determined.
The one concession that the Open makes to big-name hunters is that it releases the schedule for the first Monday of play on the Saturday before the tournament begins. A week ago Saturday, the opening day’s schedule was posted late in the afternoon, and I promptly began strategizing. The bottom half of the draw would play Monday, which meant Federer would not get underway until Tuesday. He would face the promising young American Frances Tiafoe in the first round, and it stood to reason that their match would be scheduled for the evening session. With Rafael Nadal also in the top half of the draw, I figured that if Federer got the night session on Tuesday, Nadal would get it on Thursday, and Federer would play his second-round match Thursday afternoon. Fervently hoping I was right, I played Ticketmaster Roulette and purchased seats for Thursday’s day session.
Now, I just needed Federer, the weather, and the tournament organizers to come through.
Federer and the weather both nearly screwed us. It poured Tuesday, washing out every match except for those played under the roof in Ashe. With so many matches to reschedule, I feared that Federer’s second-round match might get bumped to Thursday night or even Friday. Happily for us, they decided to play two days of matches on Wednesday, meaning the tournament would be back on schedule by that night. But no sooner had that danger receded than another one emerged: Tiafoe was giving Federer a serious scare under the lights in Ashe. Millions of people consider Federer a deity and worship him, and when the Tiafoe match went to a fifth set, I found myself praying to him, as well. It was a simple prayer, to the point: “Roger, I have never asked much of you, but if you could please, please, please just pull through here, I would be eternally grateful.” Roger is a merciful god: my prayers were answered, he won the match, and disaster and further disappointment were averted.
At around 5pm last Wednesday, I started checking the tournament site to see if the next day’s schedule had been released. I also started checking the price action on StubHub. The lowest price for Thursday’s day session in Ashe had been holding steady at $80-$95 per ticket. At 5:30, the tournament still hadn’t released Thursday’s order of play, but the lowest price on StubHub had spiked to $167, which suggested that someone in the market was suddenly very confident that Federer would be playing in the afternoon. A few minutes later, I toggled back to the tournament site, and there it was: Federer-Youzhny would be the final match of the day session on Ashe. (When I looked again at StubHub about 15 minutes later, the lowest price had soared to $300.) The kids were ecstatic. I was relieved. Now, barring catastrophe—Federer tripping on a toy or eating a spoiled piece of sushi, our car suffering a flat tire on the New Jersey Turnpike—James and Ava were going to be in the stands for a Federer match.
Ava was beaming as we entered Ashe. “I’m so happy,” she whispered to me. The match against Youzhny was a strange one, but it also kind of encapsulated Federer’s career. He nearly bageled Youzhny in the first set, torturing the Russian with a display of shotmaking genius that left us giggling it was so absurdly good and that called to mind Federer’s ascendancy, when he routinely humiliated opponents (remember the 2004 Open final, in which he won two sets at love against Lleyton Hewitt?) Then came a pair of sets in which Federer seemed to age 50 years—his movement was sluggish, he shanked balls, and he appeared completely out of sorts. After he fell behind two sets to one, it occurred to me that we were quite possibly witnessing Federer’s final match in New York. If he lost to Youzhny, and if his body was giving out on him again, perhaps he’d finally walk away. I kept that thought to myself even as a funereal atmosphere settled over Ashe.
But just as the fallow period that Federer endured between 2013 and 2016 proved to be a false twilight, a prelude to his revival this year, those second and third sets against Youzhny turned out to be preludes to a stirring comeback. As Federer regained his movement and timing, Ava and I fell into conversation about his footwork (the feet again!). It was clear that she was watching as a player, trying to see what she could apply to her own game, which as a tennis dad made me very happy. James was not watching as a tennis player, but he was also learning stuff: we talked about Federer’s positive body language and his ability to put mistakes and momentary setbacks behind him. When I asked James whether watching Federer was tempting him at take up tennis (I still hold out hope), he said no, but he admitted that he was impressed by what he was seeing. “You do a lot of running in basketball,” he said, “but these guys are covering so much ground.”
As the match reached its climax and the setting sun bathed the east side of the stadium in a golden light, the crowd grew ecstatic. (“I never heard so much noise at a tennis match,” Ava later said.) I spent the last few games watching James and Ava as they watched Federer. From the rapt expressions on their faces, it was clear that they were soaking up the moment and that they grasped its valedictory essence—that although Federer, the greatest male tennis player in history and the planet’s most beloved athlete, would outfox time and age on this day, the end of the Federer era was approaching, and the scene unfolding before us was to be savored and etched in memory. And it occurred to me that it was probably just as well that it had taken so long to make this day happen—that three or four years ago, James and Ava might still have been too young to fully appreciate what they were seeing and to understand its significance.
For Federer, the Youzhny match is probably one he would just as soon forget. For me, for reasons that have nothing to do with the score or the quality of the tennis, it now ranks as the greatest Federer match ever.