French Open 2011: Federer is first and last to beat Djokovic
Rankings, power shifts, record runs and the French title -all were at stake between Federer and Djokovic
The air on Philippe Chatrier vibrated with anticipation. It had been a full house for Rafael Nadal’s defeat of Andy Murray in the French Open’s first semi-final, a quality encounter packed with drama, cat-and-mouse tactics and one which, in the end, demonstrated the full power of the Spaniard.
But this second match had something more -indeed a lot more -as the knowledgeable French crowd, commentary teams and the worldwide tennis public knew.
Tweets from revising students, commuters travelling under the Channel, sports aficionados awaiting flights in airport lounges, and even Kim Clijsters from home, confirmed it: the match between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer was big.
And if any further proof was needed, Nadal gave it after his own victory on Paris’s centre court: “The best player of the world today against the best player of history. It’s going to be a fantastic match.”
Djokovic had been unbeaten since the semi-finals at the World Tour Finals in November 2010 where he was beaten by Federer.
But Djokovic had beaten the Swiss in their three subsequent meetings. More significant, perhaps, he had beaten him in the last two Grand Slams, saving two match points in a five-set thriller at the US Open and winning the Australian Open in straight sets.
Now, with all the Majors in the hands of Djokovic or Nadal, the talk was of a new duopoly replacing the six-year dominance of Federer and Nadal. After all, hadn’t Djokovic supplanted Federer as No2 in the world on the hard courts of North America in early spring?
So for the first time in their 23 meetings, protocol determined that it was Federer who marched onto court ahead of the superior seed, though it made little difference to the Roland Garros crowd. Federer’s arrival was greeted like the second coming.
But it was not just reputations on the line on this hot, blustery, sultry day.
Djokovic was aiming to confirm his status as the best player in the world by taking the No1 ranking for the first time.
All he had to do was beat Federer. He was aiming to match John McEnroe’s record unbeaten season start of 42, hoping to reach his first Paris final and, should he win, become the first man since Jim Courier in 1992 to win the Australian and French titles in the same year.
All he had to do was beat Federer. And with 43 consecutive wins beginning with Serbia’s Davis Cup victory in December, he was also after Guillermo Vilas’s 1977 record of 46 in a row: All he had to do was beat Federer.
However, Federer was the only player to reach the semis this year without dropping a set, despite being the only one to play three seeds. He had proved his credentials in Paris, too, reaching four consecutive French finals between 2006 and 2009, finally winning in the last.
So tennis royalty had turned out, and Jim Courier, Guga Kuerten, Martina Navratilova, Stefan Edberg and more were gripped along with everyone else from the first ball.
It was an extraordinary start with both men, such strong servers, broken in their opening games and Federer going 40-0 for another break chance in the third. Djokovic forced him into errors and the game continued through 13 minutes and many deuces until the Serb finally held, 2-1.
In the fifth, Federer got another break chance with a crisp backhand down the line but Djokovic aced to hold and then won two chances of his own. A backhand winner off a 130mph Federer serve took it instantly.
But Federer was clearly up for a fight and his razor-sharp assault hit back to win three more break points with some blistering forehands. It was this shot that sealed the break and the crowd erupted. Had there been any doubt about the Parisian allegiance, it was in no doubt from this moment on.
Once again, with Federer serving to stay in the first set at 4-5, Djokovic powered his own forehand through the court to take a 40-15 lead, and yet again Federer responded with all-or-nothing aggression and accuracy to hold his serve. Djokovic managed a wry smile as he saw the set points snatched away and they headed to a tie-break.
Federer took an early advantage but then threw in two poor forehands to level things 5-5. But he won the next two points, the set and a standing ovation after an hour and 10 minutes of high-octane tennis.
The quality was drawing gasps at every turn as the two combatants hit sharp, bullet-accurate drives on forehand and backhand, each sprinting full widths time and again, retrieving near-winners with slice and angle, going for their shots at every opportunity. It was no-holds-barred stuff, as Andrew Castle purred on the BBC: “It’s just absolutely mind-blowing, a beautiful tennis match.”
The drama continued in the same vein: Federer immediately conceding a break point saved with an ace. He then worked three break chances in the fourth game, finding a winner with a wonderful dancing forehand down the line: 3-1.
His laser-accurate serving kept up the pressure and Djokovic defended more break points in another marathon service game, this time holding with a ripped forehand.
At 5-2, Federer worked four break points but the new-model Djokovic confidence and accuracy resisted and he held, following it with an attack on Federer to bring up a break point of his own. Federer found two aces to take him to set point and once more, Roland Garros erupted as he took it, 6-3.
By now, the statisticians were hard at work. Some were calculating the amount of light left for play, some revealing that Federer had never lost a Grand Slam match from two sets up. All seemed irrelevant as the momentum began to shift in the third.
Federer played a dreadful opening game and his first double fault offered Djokovic two break points and, subsequently, a 3-0 lead. The Serbian onslaught continued as Federer came within a whisker of going two breaks down but he saved that ignominy with an absurd drop-shot winner.
Djokovic, though, was now on fire and memories of his comeback in the US Open started to rise. Sure enough, he took the third set, 6-3.
There were whispers of just an hour’s light left to play and the prospect of a fifth set going to a second day. But the cloud cleared and the sun kissed the upper rim of Philippe Chatrier, and the two men continued to improve their levels to counter the clean hitting and nimble-footed, flexible defence of the other.
They stayed level until the ninth game when suddenly, after a love service game, Federer could not find a first serve to save his life.
With the help of a netted drop-shot attempt, Djokovic broke but the Swiss immediately took back three break points, one with, according to the BBC’s blogger, “the finest shot in tennis,” an up-the-line backhand winner.
Federer broke and then survived two more break points, one with an aced second serve. In minutes, it is another tie-break.
At the change of ends it was all square, 3-3, but it proved to be Federer’s serving, so strong all match, that made the difference and, with perfect timing, he delivered his 18th ace to win the match.
The embrace between the two was warmer than in their entire rivalry but Federer’s subsequent roar to his box and raised index finger said it all: Today, he had beaten the best player of 2011, and had done it with some of his best tennis in two years.
It marked his 49th win at Roland Garros, equalling Borg’s total and bettered only by Vilas, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi. And he admitted that “It was certainly one of my greatest matches.”
So he may now, more than in any of their previous four meetings at Roland Garros, fancy his chances of beating Nadal for the first time.