Djokovic leapfrogs Federer to US Open final and world No2

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
novak djokovic
Novak Djokovic - sets up Rafael Nadal final (Photo: Rahul Saligram and Gayatri Ramnath)

novak djokovic

The scenario—New York, US Open, final weekend—was becoming a habit. When Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic met in the semi-final on Arthur Ashe on Super Saturday, it was for the fourth consecutive time. And Federer had won on every occasion.

Indeed, Federer had reached the finals for the last six years, and if he turned up with the game that beat Soderling in the quarter-finals, he was favourite to do so again in this, his 44th consecutive Grand Slam.

What added a little extra spice to the contest was that they met only last month, both coming into the Toronto Masters after a long break from the tour. It was a tight match, on courts not dissimilar to Flushing’s, and it ended, as the majority of their matches have, in a win for Federer.

Looking at their progress in the Open, Federer had enjoyed the smoother ride: he had not dropped a set—indeed he had only faced one tie-breaker.

Djokovic had a tough first-round five-setter in the searing heat of week one. But the win seemed to inject some extra belief into his game. With each subsequent match, he showed more confidence and more consistency. By his fourth round match against Mardy Fish, his fluid ground-strokes, accurate serving, and attacking stance began to meld into very good form.

So two men playing near their best tennis, lots of history, lots at stake: And the opening was as edgy as you would expect. Both were taken to deuce and faced break points, and the rallies, even at this stage, extended into big-hitting battles, with balls placed in all four corners, retrieved, and pounded back.

Djokovic, though, gained a 40-0 lead in Federer’s third service game and converted the last with a superb pick-up volley. But it’s happened before. When things are bad, Federer finds a little more venom on his returns, and he took his own break point chance with a smash. He held his serve with the same attacking game and three more smashes.

Djokovic, who had looked marginally in control of the match, wavered at just the wrong moment and, at 5-5, Federer pounced again to win a love game break. He stepped up to serve for the set and delivered, sealing it with another smash: 7-5.

But a close look at the stats showed the seeds of Federer’s demise were already sown. His first serve percentage was just 46, his unforced errors 14. And things would get worse.

In the second set, Federer could barely find a first serve—his standard dropped to 40 per cent—and he scored 10 unforced errors against just two winners. Djokovic broke immediately and was 3-0 up in no time. Federer’s concentration deserted him like rain into the sand, he was broken a second time, and Djokovic served it out.

The last time Federer lost a 6-1 set at the US Open was nine years ago to Andre Agassi. 2010 marked the second time. After an opening set with a 14 out of 14 net approach success rate, he dropped to zero from four.

What Federer could not control was the continuing calm and constant focus of Djokovic, who hardly missed a ball, hardly made an error, pounced on every second serve, and put away crisp volleys. As Federer’s game drained into the court, Djokovic’s sap rose from it.

In the third set, Federer still seemed unable to contain the depth and power of the Djokovic game, but held onto his serve—just—to reach 6-5. Then for a moment, the Djokovic composure wavered, he made a couple of errors, and quite literally beat himself about the head with his racket.

Negative body language can be a dangerous thing. While Federer’s gave nothing away, Djokovic’s was writ large. Federer attacked and broke the Serb to love for another 7-5 set.

Once again, despite just a 50 per cent first serve success rate, Federer made 12 successful forays to the net from 13 attempts. The message was clear: take the initiative. But the momentum swung again.

Djokovic broke Federer’s second service game with some superb attack and finish, out-manoeuvred him at the net, and regained his composure. He took another break and a 6-2 set. Most telling again, Federer’s net attacks fell to two winners in eight attempts while, on the Djokovic side, they rose to five from six.

By now, Djokovic had started to get a read on the few first serves that Federer did make, and as rallies developed, Djokovic continued to apply the thumb screws with hard, deep hitting, both accurate and secure, on the forehand and backhand.

After precisely three hours, the match was precisely even. The tension was like a violin string that each player plucked to a higher pitch with every game. With Djokovic serving at 4-5, however, it looked as though he might waver at the crucial stage for a third time as he went down 15-40.

But this was a composed and focused Djokovic, and he strung together three outright winners back-to-back, and a fourth to hold serve. What happened to the chip-and-charge tactic that Federer introduced so successfully in Toronto and Cincinnati is a mystery—one that only he and Paul Annacone can answer. But in a heady mix of composure and adrenalin, Djokovic continued to attack on Federer’s serve.

It felt like a decisive moment, and it was. Djokovic broke and served out—calm and strong—to take his place in the final.

It’s been a long time coming. Djokovic, endowed with so much talent and so many options on his racket, showed a new maturity in dominating his US Open bête noir.

Federer’s serve was suspect, and his failure to attack the net more consistently was a surprise. But much of that has to be credited to some of the most consistent, clean and accomplished hitting seen in the tournament.

Behold, the complete Djokovic: No2 in the world.

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