Why Roger Federer has a big advantage at the US Open

NEW YORK -- Tennis players, even as they advance into their 30s, like to talk about getting better.

At the age of 34, Roger Federer -- at least with respect to his serve -- is actually walking the walk. According to surprising statistics provided by the ATP World Tour, Federer is serving better than ever.

Heading into the US Open, the 17-time Grand Slam champion is landing 64 percent of his first serves so far in 2015, matching his career bests in 2008 and 2011. He's winning 80 percent of his first-serve points -- his best ever. Likewise, he's winning 93 percent of his service games, better than his heyday of 2004-07, when he won 11 of 16 Grand Slam singles titles and all four US Opens.

"It all starts with the serve, to be quite honest," Federer acknowledged before this tournament began. "If you're able to hold your serve, I don't want to say you can do pretty much anything on the return, but chances are it's in your favor."

The No. 2-seeded Federer was a perfect 12-for-12 in service games Tuesday against Leonardo Mayer. Not surprisingly, Federer was a 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 first-round winner in 77 minutes.

Part of his success comes from using a larger, more powerful Wilson racket for the past two years.

"Absolutely," said Darren Cahill, ESPN analyst and former coach of world No. 1s Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt. "Look at the field. Players are paying more attention to the important stats than they did, say, 10 years ago.

"The racket really helps him. After more than a year, it's become an extension of his arm."

The other piece is Federer's more aggressive play to counter the bigger baseline hitters he's encountering more and more. In winning the title 11 days ago in Cincinnati, Federer served 49 times -- and won 49 games. And that included matches against No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 3 Andy Murray in which Federer didn't even face a single break point.

And he's ending points more quickly, sometimes with only two strokes.

"The one-two play," Cahill said, nodding. "The court in Cincinnati helped him. It's a fast, low-bouncing court. He didn't need to reach back for those extra five, six miles per hour. He could just use that easy motion and hit it 115 to 118 miles per hour. Easy motion, easy power. When that happens, there's a lot of free points. The opponent has less time and you can back up your first shot a little better.

"With Fed, it's not about speed as much as placement."

The courts at the US Open are always a little slower than Cincinnati, as Cahill pointed out, particularly the first week. During the course of the tournament, they get quicker as the players wear down the first layer of sand mixed into the surface.

In other words, Federer's serve should grow more lethal as the event progresses.

"You don't know if you're going to hold most of the serves, but I did that very well last week," Federer said. "As the tournament went on, I decided to keep up aggressive play because it didn't just start against Murray and Djokovic. From that standpoint, I was very happy that I was able to keep it up."

Federer, a five-time champion here, won his 73rd US Open match, tying him with Ivan Lendl for third on the all-time list, behind only Jimmy Connors (98) and Andre Agassi (79).

Mayer, who held five match points in their last meeting, in Shanghai nearly a year ago, lost that match and left the court in tears. Federer acknowledged he was "crazy lucky" to escape with the victory.

Not this time.