© Ella Ling

Miami 2012 - Federer with fans 2

Roger Federer chases history in New York

Only three men have won more US Open titles than Roger Federer, and that trio were all amateurs. One went to prison for ‘immoral offences’, another shot himself in the head (while lying on his bed in his pyjamas in the Knickerbocker Club in Manhattan), and the third was competing in the nineteenth century. Or you could put it another way: Federer could be just days away from becoming the most successful tennis player in America since the Wall Street Crash, from becoming the only man of the modern age to win the US Open six times.
For now, Federer shares the modern-era record of five victories with Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras. Federer’s face is on the side of the tournament buses again, he’s back as the world No 1, and the Swiss, the champion for five consecutive years between 2004 and 2008, but who has not won the title since, has the opportunity to take himself clear.
On the all-time list, taking in the amateur and professional eras, Federer is the only man who has not played for the Stars and Stripes. The three Americans to have won seven US Opens titles are Richard Sears, William Larned and Bill Tilden. Of the three, Sears had the most remarkable run. The first time he played the tournament, in 1881, he was still a student at Harvard, and he would never lose a match there (though it should be noted that each year, as the defending champion, he would receive byes all the way to the final). After winning seven consecutive titles, the last coming in 1887, he never played the event again.
Larned’s seven victories came between 1901 and 1911. The newspaper reports of his suicide in 1926, in a private room of a club on New York’s Fifth Avenue, suggested he had been “defeated at last by the torture of an illness that had made his once vigorous step the painful shuffle of a cripple”. It was thought that his physical problems, which had been brought on by rheumatism, could be attributed to the hardships he suffered in the Spanish-American War while he was in Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, and his doctor disclosed that the former champion had gone through a nervous breakdown: “While his condition had never been alarming, it was unquestionably the direct cause of his act.”
Tilden, a man so talented that he would occasionally play poorly at the start of matches to make life more interesting, was the star of the 1920s. Like Larned’s tale, Tilden’s story was also, ultimately, a sad one. Tilden once ran with the Hollywood set. But he lost most of his fortune backing ill-fated Broadway stage plays, he was twice imprisoned for sex scandals or “immoral offences”, and when he died, he was alone in a rented room, with less than 100 dollars to his name.