MASON (Ohio) • Despite the adage about "old dogs", Roger Federer is still learning new tricks at 34.
The latest - a sudden rush forward nearly to the service line to return his opponent's second serves - has been deployed bravely and brazenly against stellar opposition throughout his fine run at the Cincinnati Open.
The tactic has taken the Swiss to the final, after he dispatched Andy Murray 6-4, 7-6 (8-6), in the semi-final on Saturday.
The move would seemingly be more at place in an outdated video game than at the elite levels of professional tennis.
Federer, who faced Novak Djokovic in yesterday's final, said he started using the strategy just for laughs.
"I did it in practice more as a joke, and I tried it again and again and again, and it just seems like it's not that hard - for me - to do," said the Swiss great, who is seeking his seventh title at the tournament. "Plus, it makes you play very committed."
Murray, who has lost his last five matches against Federer, said he was not particularly affected by the return tactic. But he acknowledged it was a rare new wrinkle in their 25th meeting.
Federer successfully used the ambush technique against some of the game's best servers last week, including Kevin Anderson and Feliciano Lopez.
"I'm happy that when I'm doing it, I'm not looking ridiculous up there," said the Swiss.
"It's fun for me to do."
Djokovic earned his reputation for having breathtaking flexibility on the court.
And he showed again on Saturday that he can bend without breaking on the scoreboard too. He escaped with a 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-2 victory to reach this tournament's final for the fifth time.
Djokovic was two points from defeat against 66th-ranked Alexander Dolgopolov of Ukraine, a qualifier who served while up by 5-4 in the second-set tiebreaker.
But the world No. 1 steeled himself, reeling off three straight points to force a third set.
Despite his hard-court prowess, Djokovic has lost in all four of his previous trips to the final of this tournament, the only Masters Series event he has not won.
Victory would make him the first player to have won all the nine events, in singles.
The prospect of the feat, which the Serb has been one step from completing since 2013, had Federer marvelling. "It is quite extraordinary to be able to achieve that," said the 17-time Grand Slam champion who has won seven of the nine events.
On the women's side, top-seeded Serena Williams booked a spot in the final with a 6-4, 6-3 win over 14th-seeded Elina Svitolina.
The American, nagged by an elbow injury for months, has struggled with her normally dominant serve and hit eight double-faults against Svitolina.
"I just need to serve with aplomb," said Williams, who will face third-seeded Simona Halep, a 6-1, 6-2 winner over Jelena Jankovic, in the other semi-final.
"And I'm not doing that right now."
NEW YORK TIMES