US Open 2011: Joy for Djokovic, despair for Federer
Djokovic and Federer served up a thriller on Saturday, but it is the world No1 who'll face Nadal in the final
It’s at times like this that one questions how any fan cannot regard tennis as the ultimate sport.
For on Super Saturday at Flushing Meadows in New York, the four supreme competitors in this most gladiatorial of endeavours gave their all before the biggest of crowds in the biggest of arenas.
Tennis is blessed with a unique set of qualities that lifts its one-on-one, fight-to-the-death character to a special place. It marries an absence of any time limit with a scoring system that ensures a match is never over until it’s over.
The raw elements of wind, humidity, heat and light impose their best and worst on player, surface and ball. And once battle is engaged, there is no-one for support.
In tennis, the prize does not go simply to the fastest, the strongest, the tallest or the smartest, it goes to the one who can marshal all those physical qualities while making split-second choices for hours on end, and yet keep their head when all about them are losing theirs.
For the semi-finals of the US Open, there was an extra dimension: a quartet of players who have dominated the rankings for more than three years.
The newest of the four, Andy Murray, arrived exactly three years ago and has stayed for all but a dozen weeks. Novak Djokovic, the current No1, has been in the top four since Wimbledon 2007.
World No2 Rafael Nadal entered the top four in June 2005. The most dominant of them all, Roger Federer, has been at the top since Wimbledon 2003 and began his unbroken 237 weeks as No1 in February the next year””until Nadal took his place.
Since then, only three Grand Slam titles have gone to anyone other than Federer, Nadal or Djokovic: Gaston Gaudio in France in 2004; Marat Safin in Australia in 2005 and Juan Martin del Potro in New York in 2009. And during the same period, one of “big four” was also the losing finalist 15 times.
There are also the personal stories: Nadal the defending champion who has seen his Wimbledon title and No1 ranking go, along with five finals losses this year, to Djokovic.
There’s Federer: repelling suggestions that turning 30 spells his decline, but who is facing his first year since 2003 without a Major.
There’s Murray, carrying the burden of British expectation from a nation without a men’s Grand Slam champion since Fred Perry won his third US title in 1936. He has reached three Major finals and suffered three Major losses.
Finally there’s Djokovic, the player of the year with just two losses against 60 wins, and nine titles that include two Slams and five Masters.
Now the original 128 men in New York have whittled down to these four just as they did in Paris. Both the match-ups are repeats of semi-finals in two previous 2011 Slams. Djokovic beat Federer in Australia but the result was reversed in Paris. Nadal beat Murray in the semis at both Paris and Wimbledon.
In this rain-disrupted tournament, the elements once again intruded as the first two protagonists, Djokovic and Federer, prepared for battle on Arthur Ashe for the fifth consecutive year. Three times Federer had beaten him here, but last year Djokovic took a dramatic five-set win after facing two match points.
That””and the fact that Federer had scored the last two full-match defeats over the almost perfect Serb””promised much for this latest encounter. Few could predict just how dramatic it would be.
Between two such attacking, clean-hitting players, the serve was crucial to their success, and neither dropped a point on serve until the fourth game””then just one by Djokovic.
Both tried to take the initiative, hitting hard, crisp and clean with few unforced errors. The rhythm was like an exchange of gunfire: cracking racket impact and bullet fast. They headed to a tie-break.
Federer took the advantage, reaching 6-3, but the Serb comes up with some big serves and a winning forehand to level. They edged to 7-7 before Federer served out the set. They had 38 points apiece.
In the second set, Federer looked, if anything, even more fired up than in the first, with each rally an intense micro-battle for supremacy. In the fourth game, he gained three break points and took the last of them with an attacking forehand.
Djokovic took the break back in the sixth but Federer struck again to love with a searing down-the-line backhand. Rarely does Federer become animated so early in a match, but he roared himself on at this second break and served out the set, 6-4.
Djokovic, though, has evolved both the physical and mental attributes of a true gladiator and he had room””on the scoreboard and on the clock””to come back.
He kept his head, lifted his game, and brought a distinct shift in momentum to the third set by breaking Federer’s opening service game as his flat, angled ground strokes peppered the back corners and forced errors from the Swiss. He held his advantage for a 6-3 set.
Djokovic carried his momentum with even more pace through a half-hour fourth set, breaking Federer twice, 6-2. The Serb’s play was now almost error-free””just two for the set””and he hit 80 percent of first serves. In truth, it looked all over.
With exactly three hours on the clock, however, Federer rediscovered his fire and energy, and with the match level at 3-3 in the final set, it could go either way. A love service game from Federer in the seventh suggested that he would, after all, prove the stronger. He broke serve to lead 5-3, his balletic but deadly forehand ripping open the court, and served for the match.
The crowd was in uproar as he carved two match points, 40-15, to bring about an eerie throwback to the same time and place the year before. Then, Federer had two match points on the Djokovic serve: this time they were on his own.
Back then, Djokovic unleashed two reflex forehands to close the door and went on to win 7-5. This time he produced another that turned the match, and raised his arms to seek approval from the crowd.
It seemed to grip the Federer arm in ice and he made a run of errors to concede the break. The rest of the set played out in what seemed a slow-motion replay of last year: Djokovic rode his momentum and Federer’s nerves to break again and then served out the match: 7-5 once more.
Had the clock stopped 10 minutes earlier than its 231 minutes, had the rain returned, had Federer kept his head for one more moment, it could all have been so different. As it was, the man who has marshalled his physical and mental skills more completely than any player this year took the spoils, just as he did last year.
In another moment of dÃ©jÃ vu, Djokovic will now again face Nadal, who beat Murray””in a rather less spine-tingling four-setter””for the third straight time in Slam semi-finals this year.
Djokovic lost last year’s final, but this time, he joins battle knowing he has defeated Nadal in five consecutive finals””two of them Slams.
He will attempt””and probably succeed”” to win over this New York crowd by the force of his tennis and his fighting spirit, or die trying.