NEW YORK No matter what anyone else said or thought, Roger Federer knew he was still capable of elite tennis.
Knew he was still capable of winning Grand Slam titles.
Knew he was still Roger Federer.
Back at his best, back at the top of tennis, Federer easily beat Andy Murray 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 Monday to win his fifth consecutive U.S. Open championship and 13th major title overall.
Federer is the first man since Bill Tilden in the 1920s to win the tournament that many times in a row. He also moved within one major championship of tying Pete Sampras' career record of 14.
"One thing's for sure," Federer said in an on-court interview. "I'm not going to stop at 13. That would be terrible."
The victory clearly came as something of a relief to Federer, who has struggled during a lackluster-only-for-him season. He lost in the semifinals at the Australian Open, and to nemesis Rafael Nadal in the finals of the French Open and Wimbledon, meaning Federer was on the verge of his first year since 2002 without a major title. Plus, his 4 1/2-year reign at No. 1 ended last month when Nadal surpassed him.
"I had a couple of tough Grand Slams this year ... so to take this one home is incredible," Federer said after stretching his U.S. Open winning streak to 34 matches. "It means the world to me."
But the sixth-seeded Murray upset Nadal in the semifinals at Flushing Meadows to reach his first Grand Slam final, and Federer had no trouble this time even though he had lost two of his previous three matches against the Scotsman.
"I came up against, in my opinion, the best player ever to play the game," said Murray, who tried to give Britain its first men's major champion in 72 years. "He definitely set the record straight today."
At 21, here's how young Murray is: Back when Federer was winning his first U.S. Open title in 2004, Murray was taking the U.S. Open junior trophy.
"I'm not as nervous any more, like in my first final," Federer said during a prematch TV interview.
Perhaps he was trying to plant doubt in Murray's head. The youngster was standing around the corner, waiting to walk out onto the court, probably already thinking about what it would feel like to be on that stage, with those stakes, against that opponent.
With his bushy hair peeking out from under his gray-and-white baseball cap, unshaven whiskers on his face, and that loping gait, Murray looks much like the college student
he otherwise might be if not so talented at tennis.
Federer, coincidentally, was the same age when he played in his first Grand Slam final, back in 2003 at Wimbledon. Except Federer won that match against Mark Philippoussis in straight sets, and has kept winning major championship matches against everyone except a certain Spaniard: Federer is 2-4 against Nadal in major finals, 13-0 against anyone else.
Indeed, Murray can consider himself in good company. Federer's other four finals at Flushing Meadows came against men who have won Grand Slam titles: Lleyton Hewitt, Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic.
"I'm sure we're going to see much more of Andy in the future," said the second-seeded Federer.
He accumulated a 36-16 advantage in winners, a 7-2 count in breaks of serve, and won the point on 31 of 44 trips to the net. His volleying might have been helped by spending so much time at the net while winning a gold medal in doubles at the Beijing Olympics.
Murray whose ranking rises to No. 4 stood about 10 feet behind the baseline to return serves, exactly the way he did against Nadal in their two-day, rain-interrupted semifinal. And Murray displayed flashes of the get-to-every-ball defense he used against Nadal, including one pretty flick of a lob by Federer with his back to the net.
But Federer, who might have benefited from an extra day to rest because his semifinal wasn't affected by Tropical Storm Hanna, was simply too much for Murray.
Too, well, Federeresque.
At only one juncture did Murray throw a scare into Federer, taking 11 of 12 points to go from 2-0 down in the second set to 2-all and love-40 on Federer's serve.
Federer saved the first break point, and on the second, a 14-stroke rally ended with Murray missing a backhand. TV replays, though, showed one of Federer's shots should have been called out and had it been, Murray would have led 3-2.
"Not necessarily would have won the match or anything, but it would have given me a bit of confidence," Murray said.
But there was no call there, and no reprieve, because Federer stayed steady and held serve.
"That was key," said Federer, the only man in tennis history to win five consecutive titles at two major tournaments. "After that, I began to play freely, the way I usually do."
In the next game, Murray began clutching at his right knee and looking up at his substantial support group in the stands, a gathering that included his mother, two coaches and two trainers.
Murray, though, said the knee had no bearing on the outcome.
"He made very few mistakes," Murray said. "The times I played him before, he had given me a few free points."
Federer closed the second set on a 10-stroke point that was a thing of beauty. First, Federer extended the point with some superb court coverage, and then shifting from defense to offense in a blink he ended it with a forehand passing winner.
Federer turned to his guest box which included his pal, Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour and bellowed, punching down with his right fist.
This is how he is supposed to play.
This is how these Grand Slam finals are supposed to go.
Not his lopsided loss to Nadal on clay at Roland Garros. Or his heartbreakingly narrow loss to Nadal 9-7 in the fifth set in fading light on grass at the All England Club, denying Federer a sixth straight title there. Those were two of Federer's 12 losses by August in 2008, more than he had in any entire season from 2004-07. He also arrived in New York with only two titles from minor events in a year that began with a bout of mononucleosis.
Only when Federer served for the match at 5-1 in the third set, and was broken, did he show a modicum of mediocrity Monday.
It merely delayed the inevitable.
Federer broke right back to end things, then rolled around with glee on the blue court. Instead of heading into the offseason wondering what went wrong, the 27-year-old Federer can look ahead with optimism.
When the men met at the net, Murray felt compelled to share a thought with Federer.
"I told him that he had, you know, a phenomenal year," Murray said, "regardless of what anyone said."