Column: Roger Federer and Serena Williams falter early but recover in time to advance

Serena Williams reacts during her second round match against Catherine McNally at the US Open on Wednesday in New York.
(Katharine Lotze / Getty Images)

Roger Federer was tested first. Though annoyed at himself at losing the opening set for the second consecutive match at the U.S Open — a first for him in his 19th appearances at Flushing Meadows — he knew his only way out would be to forget his missteps and start building on each modest success. After shaking off his rust, Federer rallied past Damir Dzumhur and moved on, rueful but unscathed.

A few hours later, Serena Williams faced a stern test when she lost the opening set of her second-round match against 17-year-old Caty McNally, who hadn’t been born when Williams won her first title here in 1999. Williams also had to tap her experience and mental strength, and she dug up plenty of reasons to believe she’s not ready to relinquish center stage to the precocious and versatile McNally.

Williams had to adjust to the teenager’s serve-and-volley tendencies — rarely seen these days — and cut down her own errors before she could take control. She didn’t hit stride until the third set but walked off the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium late Wednesday with a 5-7, 6-3, 6-1 victory, exhausted but also reassured.


“I survived tonight,” Williams said, and that’s all that mattered as she continued to pursue the elusive 24th Grand Slam event singles title that will bring her even with career leader Margaret Court. “I think it’s great because I want to be able to win matches where I’m not playing my best, play players who are playing great, be able to come through. I need to be tested, I guess.”

Williams, who committed 13 unforced errors in the first two sets but only two in the third, then had a second thought.

“Actually, I’d rather not be tested in every match,” she said. “But that doesn’t happen, so it’s important for me to have those, like, really rough, rowdy matches. That helps a lot.”

McNally wasn’t intimidated by the occasion or the cavernous stadium.

A look at what happened during Day 3 of the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York.

Aug. 28, 2019

“I knew I was playing against the greatest of all time. I walked out there and I had the chills,” she said. “Just an unbelievable experience and something I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. ... I was super happy just to get a set from her. That’s something not many people do.”

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic went the minimum to defeat Juan Ignacio Londero of Argentina 6-4, 7-6 (3), 6-1, but Djokovic didn’t escape unscathed. He needed a medical timeout for treatment of pain in his left shoulder that had adversely affected his serve and backhand, and he said at several points he wasn’t sure if he would be able to finish the match. But he did, erasing an 0-3 deficit after going down two breaks in the middle set.


“It’s something I’ve been carrying for quite a while now,” he said. “I’m hoping that with proper medical help and treatments, I’ll be able to get myself in a better state than I was today in a few days.”

It’s the ultimate compliment to 38-year-old Federer that the pulse of tennis fandom still pauses when he loses a set. Losing the first set in two consecutive matches stopped that pulse for a couple of beats.

“I have been in that position many times where you go through a little phase where you don’t start so well and everybody asks you right away, ‘What are you going to do?’” he said. “You’re like, ‘I don’t know.’”

There’s something reassuring about hearing a 20-time Grand Slam tournament champion say he doesn’t have all the answers after he’d played his 100th match at the U.S. Open. But he had enough answers against Dzumhur to earn a 3-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 victory, though he was irked he had to follow his four-set opener against Sumit Nagal of India with another four-set exertion.

“I don’t think there is, per se, a secret to a good start other than warming up well, being well-prepared mentally, not underestimating your opponent. I did all of that. You know me, I will always do that,” Federer said. “So when it happens like this in back-to-back matches it’s just a bit frustrating more than anything, especially when the level is that low and there is that many errors and the energy is not kind of there. Can only do better, which is a great thing moving forward.”

Federer no longer seems so invincible. He couldn’t hold off Dominic Thiem in the final at Indian Wells in March and followed that by losing in the quarterfinals at Rome and Madrid, and squandering two match points against Djokovic in the Wimbledon final. In his last tournament before Flushing Meadows, at Cincinnati, he lost to Sergey Rublev in the round of 32.


Maybe he merely found it difficult Wednesday to get psyched against a player whose year is made when Federer says hello to him, but Federer will have to better conserve his energy to get deeper into this tournament without stopping any more pulses.

“I knew what Nagal was going to give me. I knew what Dzumhur was going to give me. But I didn’t expect to hit 15 to 20 unforced errors, which is basically the entire set just sort of donated,” said Federer, who committed 17 of his 45 unforced errors Wednesday in the first set. “But look, they came out and they were well prepared and got me to do that. But I clearly have to play better from the get-go.”

That’s two tests passed for Federer, Williams and Djokovic, with more to go.