Detailed prophecy is not our business

Halle, Final

(1) Federer d. Youzhny, 6/7 6/3 6/4

Roger Federer has defeated Mikhail Youzhny in the final of the Gerry Weber Open, a result that, as ever, prompted a number of categories, great or obscure, to increase their value by one. For an example of the latter, this latest title increases Federer’s career title tally to seventy-seven, which places him equal third on the all-time list, level with John McEnroe. Halle is also the third title he has won at least six times, along with Wimbledon and the Tour Finals. This was also his fifteenth victory over Youzhny, the most times he has ever defeated someone without conceding a single loss.† Less epoch shattering, though arguably more pertinent to the moment, this is the first title Federer has won this year, abbreviating a title-free streak that gloomier souls feared might extend forever. Federer Halle 2013 -6As it happened, it was still his longest stretch without a lifting a trophy since 2002, which is to say, since before his illustrious career gained much of its lustre.

Initially there seemed a decent chance that none of these categories would be added to. Through a good – a very good – set and a half, Youzhny was the more enterprising player, his endeavour as brazen as his execution was fine. Federer on the other hand was unduly cautious off the ground and often cripplingly timid on return. He has now played well over a hundred finals, many of them at events even more exalted than Halle, but there’s no reason to think he wasn’t nervous. Everyone gets nervous, even facing another veteran they’ve never lost to. Or perhaps especially when they are. Ruminating after his fourteenth win over David Ferrer last November, Federer remarked that ‘in some ways it’s helpful to have that one-sided head-to-head record, but at the same time it sometimes creates pressure as well.’ One wonders how heavily his crushing favouritism weighed him down.

Given how the match was to unfold, the first two games proved so far from indicative that they might be construed as ironic. Youzhny deflected four break points – three with his serve – before Federer ambled round and held rapidly to love. I recall a similar pattern developing in last year’s final, in that Federer made the early running, but was never permitted to gallop away. Eventually he was reined in (whereupon the equine metaphor was pronounced dead, and thoroughly flogged). On that occasion the eventual victory went to Tommy Haas – his first over Federer in a decade – which was wonderful at the time for the German, and helped propel him on his current journey towards the top ten. It was especially useful a year later when Federer beat Haas in the Halle semifinals, particularly for that species of commentator who believes revenge to be a motivating factor in tennis matches between close friends.

In any case, this year’s final featured rather less all-court virtuosity than last, not because the protagonists are necessarily less accomplished off the ground or at the net, but because both were serving well and returning badly. Youzhny was returning better, however, and seemed to cotton on very quickly to the wide serve to the deuce court. He began to sit on that serve, and pummel any forehand return he could lay a racquet on. Nonetheless, both men held on for the tiebreak – a break point here or there – which was mostly magnificent, and ended with the Russian dictating masterfully from his backhand.

Indeed he continued in this manner all afternoon, and almost never stopped serving well. There were only two lapses. Sadly both were severe, and cost him the match. The first of these coincided with Federer landing a rare trio of returns within the confines of his opponent’s half of the tennis court, although he was spared from having to extend that streak when Youzhny failed to land his serves in the correct service box. The second break came midway through the third set via an especially savage backhand pass, upon which Youzhny marched to the chair and buried his head in his towel. (It was a change of ends, so this behaviour was allowed, and of all the ways Youzhny has treated his head in the throes of disappointment, this was among the gentlest. I’m always a fan of his, but felt particularly so at this moment.) From there the pattern of holds resumed – Youzhny’s bellowing and fist-pumping hardly abated, and if anything climaxed in his final service game – with Federer eventually serving it out comfortably.

The trophy ceremony took an eternity to get under way. They can close the stadium roof in under ninety seconds but arranging a posse of suited men into a chorus line was apparently too much. The two Webers entered to extravagant fanfare. Once they were arrayed, the suited men began congratulating each other in German, which I could have vaguely followed had my stream’s commentator not drowned it out by translating everything into Russian. Youzhny might have explained it for me, but he was busy in Halle shooting the breeze with Federer, the latter having sauntered over to while away the long minutes until they were again required. I was reminded of Serena Williams’ lovely gesture to Sam Stosur after the Australian won the US Open. Eventually Federer was presented with his sixth soup tureen, resplendent in gold and green. One day he’ll open a soup kitchen, and it’ll be fancy. I wonder if he keeps all the similar trophies clustered together in his trophy room, or whether they’re all jumbled up in a big pile. Sadly, he probably doesn’t even have time to play with them very often. Youzhny was given a very nice plate, one I feel would be ideal for a really thick stew, or perhaps a casserole. It was the least he deserved: he was wonderful this week, knocking off three seeds. I doubt whether anyone would have begrudged him the soup pot.

As for Federer, inveterate doomsayers wasted no time in announcing that the manner of his winning Halle bodes ill for his chances at Wimbledon. I seem to recall hearing the same thing as he lost last year’s Halle final in straight sets. I cannot argue that he isn’t the favourite, but I can point out that he’s still Roger Federer.

If you want to know how this match looked minus its extravagant quota of unreturned serves, like a murky lake dredged to reveal a bed of gold, you could do worse than these highlights. The full match can be seen here.

† This moves Youzhny one loss clear of Ferrer, who is 0-14 against Federer. 

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