NEW YORK — At 34, and more than three years removed from his most recent Grand Slam title, Roger Federer arrived at this U.S. Open with some changes in store.
There’s his much-discussed “SABR” — “Sneak Attack By Roger” — tactic, in which he half-volleys the occasional second-serve return. He skipped a hard-court tuneup tournament last month, choosing to rest and prepare. And he’s now completely comfortable with the larger racket head he had experimented with off and on in the past.
Add it all up, and he might just be playing as well as ever, which is saying something for a guy that owns a record 17 major titles.
Federer moved into his first U.S. Open final since 2009 with the latest in a string of dominating performances, overwhelming longtime pal and Swiss Olympic and Davis Cup teammate Stan Wawrinka 6-4, 6-3, 6-1 on Friday night.
“What’s it been now? Six years I haven’t been in the final? Sounds like a big deal,” Federer said. “Not that long ago, my opinion.”
As for the quality of his play over the past two weeks — he has won all 18 sets he’s played, dropped only 62 games, and been broken only twice in 81 service games — Federer said: “It’s definitely very good. Maybe my best, I’m not sure. … I’d love it to work just one more time.”
That would be in Sunday’s final, which is a blockbuster: The No. 2-seeded Federer meets No. 1 Novak Djokovic, owner of nine major titles himself.
Believe it or not, Djokovic’s match Friday was even less competitive. He beat defending champion Marin Cilic 6-0, 6-1, 6-2, the most lopsided semifinal in New York in the Open era, which started in 1968.
“There’s a lot on the line always when we play against each other,” said Federer, who beat Djokovic in the 2007 U.S. Open final but lost semifinals to him in 2010 and 2011, both 7-5 in the fifth set.
It is their record-tying 42nd career matchup overall — only Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have played each other that often in the Open era — and Federer leads 21-20. He won their most recent match, on a hard court last month at the Cincinnati Masters. This will be their sixth meeting of 2015, all in finals, and Djokovic has won three, including the Wimbledon final two months ago.
“We all know how consistent he is and how good he is in the latter stages of Grand Slams and any other big tournament,” Djokovic said. “He always makes you play your best.”
On the same day that Serena Williams’ bid for a calendar-year Grand Slam ended with a semifinal loss to Roberta Vinci, Djokovic made it to his fourth major final of the year. He won the Australian Open in January, lost to Wawrinka at the French Open in June, and won Wimbledon in July.
“Well, of course it’s a great achievement, and I’m very proud of it,” Djokovic said. “These are the tournaments where you want to perform your best.”
For Djokovic, it’s his sixth trip to the final at Flushing Meadows. He’s only won one, in 2011.
Federer won five consecutive U.S. Opens from 2004-08; he lost to Juan Martin del Potro in the 2009 final.
Since then, Federer has won two majors, at the Australian Open in 2010 and Wimbledon in 2012. Djokovic’s tally in that same span? Eight trophies.
But nowadays, Federer’s movement is as good as ever. His serve is a perfect mix of power and placement. And his return game now features the “SABR,” which came about accidentally during a practice session.
“It’s an exciting shot for him. For the player (on the) opposite side of the net, not so much,” Djokovic said, noting he hasn’t considered trying it. “So I have nothing else to say about that.”
Wawrinka had a rather simply explanation for what was so difficult for him Friday, when Federer won 80
“Basically, it’s him,” the fifth-seeded Wawrinka said. “The way he’s playing.”
Against the ninth-seeded Cilic, Djokovic made only 13 unforced errors.
“A lot of people are going to say it’s a little bit of (an) embarrassment to lose like that,” said Cilic, who explained that the right ankle he twisted in the fourth round was bad enough that he would have withdrawn from a lesser tournament.
Djokovic is 14-0 against Cilic. His rivalry with Federer is far more intriguing.
“He’s been really tough to beat, plus he’s tough mentally,” Federer said. “I like that challenge, and I’ll be ready for it.”
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Howard Fendrich, The Associated Press