New York’s still Roger Federer’s town despite Tiafoe’s challenge

This was a reminder, as if we ever should have needed one on the court where two years ago Roberta Vinci stopped Serena Williams’ pre-ordained march to the Grand Slam in a staggering semifinal match, that sporting events are competitions rather than coronations.

Because Tuesday’s first-round match between the ageless Roger Federer and the teenaged Frances Tiafoe under the roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium produced a battle that will be remembered for ages, the Swiss icon ultimately prevailing in a dramatic 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4 five-setter that proved foregone conclusions are far removed from that.

This was the 36-year-old Renaissance Man in his Renaissance Season taking the first step toward his third Grand Slam championship of the year after having won the Australian Open and Wimbledon and skipping the French Open that was captured by Rafael Nadal.

And on this rain-speckled day and night through which the roof saved at least part of the program, the personality differences between Federer and Nadal — who breezed through his first-round match with a straight set victory over Dusan Lajovic — were never more stark.

Let’s stipulate that the din under the roof at Ashe can at times be confused with the clatter of the Times Square subway station. It rarely lets up. Nadal noticed it — duh — and issued a plea during his post-match press conference for the tournament officials to try to do something about it by “being a little more strict about the noise, in my opinion, no?”

The Spaniard did not descend to diatribe and in fact acknowledged that the roof had proved a boon to the event. He acknowledged the “massive energy and support of the crowd.” He was not talking sour grapes as he said the racket prevented him from hearing the ball off his opponent’s racket. But still.

Nadal had played one match under the roof last year. But this was the first time for Federer, who did not play in the 2016 Open, having withdrawn after undergoing knee surgery following Wimbledon. And though the noise did abate at times during this match, this was no picnic.

And yet, when Federer was asked by ESPN in his on-court interview about the roof’s effect on him and on the match, the 19-time Grand Slam winner — one for every year Tiafoe has been on this earth — luxuriated in the atmosphere it produced.

“It’s great,” he said. “It’s an even better atmosphere than we used to have. It was a great experience.”

This, perhaps even more so than his skill, grace and resume, is why Federer is the most universally respected athlete since Pele; beloved, even. It’s his personality.

This is an individual who has erased the bounds of petty partisanship, who has somehow managed to glide above controversy while competing in a cut-throat environment and competing as well, if not better, than any man who has come before him or has accompanied him onto the stage.

It is why he is the de facto home team in Queens, even when playing a young American like Tiafoe, who will be a darling of the crowd when his day comes, you can see that. But that’s for another time. This time still belongs to Federer. This town still belongs to Federer.

Understand: Entering this year, Federer had not won in his last 15 Grand Slam events dating back to Wimbledon in 2012 and had won one of his last 25 since Australia in 2010.

Now, the Maestro is seeking to go three-for-three after sitting out Roland Garros and the French that was captured by Nadal in what has become a Tennis World for Old Men.

This is a bizarre tournament, an Open where one half of the draw is essentially open following the injury-related withdrawals of No. 2 Andy Murray, No. 4 and defending champion Stan Wawrinka, No. 5 Novak Djokovic, No. 10 Kei Nishikori and No. 11 Milos Raonic.

And one half of the draw is open because both third-seeded Federer and top-seeded, top-ranked Nadal are in the same half and thus would be on track to meet in the semifinal rather than the final in what would be the living legends’ first confrontation ever in New York.

Somehow, the confrontation seems pre-ordained. But we know this about sports. Nothing is pre-ordained.

“The unknown,” Federer said. “Sometimes that makes it more exciting.”


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