NEW YORK — So you’re ranked 1,370th — tied for 1,370th, actually — and you’re 18 years old, and you’re making your Grand Slam debut at the U.S. Open against Roger Federer.
Yes, THAT Roger Federer, the guy ranked No. 1, owner of a record 15 major titles and considered by many the greatest player in tennis history.
You want to acquit yourself well, certainly, even if you recognize that Federer’s 35th consecutive victory at Flushing Meadows is going to come at your expense. And here are among the thoughts entering your mind: When are you going to get another chance like this? When are you next going to be sharing Arthur Ashe Stadium with Roger Federer?
If you’re Devin Britton of Jackson, Miss., the youngest NCAA singles champion ever, you treat the whole thing as if you’re stepping into a real-life version of a video game and decide to check out what this Federer guy can do.
“His forehand is just crazy. I tried to keep (the ball) away,” the American said with a mischievous smile, “but sometimes I just hit it there just to see it.”
Britton enjoyed the view, if not the final result. The kid even got to relish a few fleeting moments when he was up a service break in each of the last two sets. Predictably, Federer gathered himself to win 6-1, 6-3, 7-5 on Monday, beginning his bid to become the first man since the 1920s to win the American Grand Slam tournament six years in a row.
“I mean, he obviously looks unbelievable on TV, but playing against it was even more tough,” Britton said. “It was so scary. I was pretty scared.”
A year ago, he was playing in the boys’ event at the U.S. Open as a junior, reaching the final. A little more than a month ago, he was playing in the boys’ event at Wimbledon, reaching the semifinals and deciding to leave school at Ole Miss and turn pro.
The U.S. Tennis Association gave Britton a wild-card invitation for the Open, and last week, his agent called with the news that his first-round foe would be Federer.
“I didn’t really believe it at first. Thought it was just a bad joke. Then I started getting texts on my phone, and I realized it’s true,” Britton said. “I was excited. I mean, I was excited at first, and then a little bit — just a little bummed. It’s a tough opponent.”
There’s an understatement. Federer won the French Open in June to complete a career Grand Slam and tie Pete Sampras’ career record for major singles titles, then won Wimbledon in July to break that mark.
Federer is well aware of the intimidation factor he carries on court.
“Young players right now, they’ll always be in sort of awe, maybe, of great players,” said the 28-year-old Federer, whose victory Monday means he will be the first tennis player to surpass $50 million in career prize money.
“These guys start to be, like, 10 years younger than me and followed my generation. They were 10 years old, and I was, you know, playing maybe my best.”
Nerves or not, Britton managed to produce more winners than Federer, 32-31.
“He did play, I think, really well,” Federer said. “He had some very good spells, and I had to make sure from my side that I stayed with him.”
How’s that for a compliment?
Britton managed to take a 3-1 lead in the second set by breaking Federer.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m up a break! This is awesome!’ Then it only lasted about 30 seconds,” Britton said. “It was probably the best seconds of my life.”
And then? Federer won the next 12 points, and the next six games.
In the third set, Britton again broke, this time for a 4-3 edge. And again, Federer broke him right back, restoring order.
Britton was “kind of rushing it when he got on top,” explained Toby Hansson, an assistant tennis coach at Ole Miss who was in the stands. “But all in all, it was a great experience for him.”
In addition to playing Federer, Britton got a chance this weekend to practice with Rafael Nadal in Ashe. All in all, it’s been an “awesome” few days — a word Britton used a lot Monday.
Still, he is by no means satisfied.
After all, once you’ve had the chance to play against Federer, and you’ve had the chance to take part in a Grand Slam tournament, you’re ready for more.
“It was so exciting to be out there,” Britton said. “Hopefully I get the chance to be out there again.”
Howard Fendrich/The Associated Press