FLUSHING MEADOWS, NEW YORK— There has seldom if ever been more on the line when Novak Djokovic has collided with Roger Federer in the final of a major championship. On this occasion, the 34-year-old Federer was trying valiantly to secure his first Grand Slam title since Wimbledon in 2012. He wanted to win an 18th “Big Four” crown, to rule in New York for the first time since he took his fifth consecutive crown in 2008, to reinvent himself in a sense. He had swept through the draw without losing a set in six matches, coming into this contest fresh and invigorated, leading many learned observers to believe that he was playing the kind of tennis that would be too much even for the mighty Serbian. For Djokovic, this was not a battle he could afford to lose; four times in five previous Open finals he had fallen short of the top prize. Moreover, he approached this meeting with a 9-8 record in finals at Grand Slam events, an unacceptable figure for a player of his growing stature.
In the end, both men had so much to gain but perhaps even more to lose. Here they were in the last major of the season, knowing precisely what was at stake, realizing that they would not compete again at a major until the Australian Open in January, striving to make the most of a monumental opportunity. The final was delayed for three hours by rain, and it commenced after 7PM under the lights on a cool evening. The conditions seemed more favorable to the top seed. Djokovic was all over Federer’s serve in the early stages.
Three times in the opening game, Djokovic advanced to break point. He did not convert, but with the Swiss serving in the third game, Djokovic exploited his chance. After Federer rallied from 0-40 to 30-40, Djokovic came through in a 25 stroke rally as Federer drove a backhand topspin long. It was 2-1 for Djokovic. But he fell down chasing a Federer drop volley in the following game, and that seemed to interfere with his concentration. Federer broke back at 15 for 2-2, held at love for 3-2, and gathered momentum in the process. It did not last long. Djokovic held for 3-3 with an ace down the T at 122 MPH. With Federer serving at 30-40 in the seventh game, the Swiss served-and-volleyed, and kept his first volley reasonably low. Yet Djokovic got down low and drove a two-handed pass up the line for a winner. He was back up a break at 4-3. The Serbian was down break point in the eighth game, but saved it when Federer overcooked a topspin backhand down the line, sending that shot well beyond the baseline.
Djokovic held on for 5-3. After Federer saved a set point in the ninth game, Djokovic served for the set and was flawless, holding at love with discipline and determination. The set had gone to Djokovic 6-4, and that was a bad omen for the Swiss Maestro. Only once in his 21 career victories over the Serbian had Federer rescued himself from a set down. And yet, after holding on in a tough, two deuce game to start the second set when he connected with only five of ten first serves, Federer started mixing up his spins, speeds and direction and no longer was Federer under heavy duress on his delivery. In fact, it was Djokovic who held from 0-40 and saved five break points on his way back to 1-1. Thereafter, both players started gaining traction on serve. Across the next six games, Federer did not concede a point on his delivery while Djokovic allowed the Swiss only one point. Clearly, Federer needed this second set considerably more than Djokovic did. At 4-4, 30-30, Federer came forward to put away an overhead and soon held at 30 for 5-4, and then the No. 2 seed put the full weight of his game behind negotiating a service break. With Djokovic serving in the tenth game, the capacity crowd in Ashe Stadium rose to their feet when the Serbian bungled a forehand long off a Federer drop shot. It was set point for Federer, but Djokovic served his way out of that jam with gumption, sending a first delivery wide to the Federer backhand to elicit an error. When Federer elegantly directed a backhand passing shot into the clear to earn a second set point, the crowd emoted effusively once more.
But Djokovic was fortunate there. He totally miss-hit a forehand and that provoked an errant forehand from a charging Federer. Djokovic held on after seven deuces, reaching 5-5 with supreme effort and some luck. Federer had a clutch hold from 15-30, winning three points in a row for 6-5. A tie-break seemed likely, and almost inevitable. But Djokovic made a couple of abysmal unforced errors to fall behind 15-40. He saved another set point to make it 30-40, but Federer took the next point with an ultra-aggressive move, lacing a topspin backhand crosscourt approach with so much pace that Djokovic had no chance on the passing shot. Set to Federer, 7-5. It was one set all.
The decidedly pro-Federer audience was eupeptic, and so was the Swiss. He was back in the match. The pattern was strikingly similar to Wimbledon, when Djokovic took the opening set before Federer cast aside seven set points against him to seal the second set. Djokovic still marched on to victory in four sets, controlling the tempo on the British lawns almost entirely in the third and fourth sets. This was a very different story in Ashe Stadium. Early in the third, Federer made one of seven attempts at the so called S.A.B.R (Sneak Attack by Roger). With Djokovic serving at 15-15, Federer made his newly minted half-volleyed return of serve to provoke a passing shot error from Djokovic. But he tried it again on the next point, and Djokovic was ready, drilling a low backhand pass to set up a scorcher off the forehand that Federer could not handle on the volley.
Djokovic got the hold for 1-1 and then Federer wasted a 40-15 lead in the following game. He double faulted at that juncture, missed with a crosscourt backhand wide, sent another backhand wide off a deep return from Djokovic, and was off target with a forehand approach down the line. On that run of four points, Djokovic was ahead 2-1 with an early break in the third set, but he squandered two game points for 3-1—the second with a feeble double fault—and lost his serve. Federer was visibly revitalized by that display of vulnerability from the Serbian. The Swiss held at love for 3-2 with an ace. Although Djokovic held on from 0-30 for 3-3 with a winning sequence of four points, Federer was soaring now. He held at love in the seventh game, and then had his best chance to perhaps gain the upper hand and take control of the proceedings.
Djokovic served at 3-4, 40-0 but, devoid of intensity, inexplicably lost the next four points. Federer stood at break point for 5-3, within striking distance of winning the set. But his renowned forehand betrayed him badly here, and he missed flagrantly. Federer garnered a second break point, but Djokovic prevailed in a terrific 15 shot exchange, whipping an inside in forehand for a winner. He held on for 4-4 despite almost giving that game away. At 4-4, Federer served an ace out wide for 40-15, but Djokovic would not go away. He took a short ball off the forehand and sent it down the line for a winner. On the following point, Federer was in no man’s land when Djokovic ran down a forehand and looped it crosscourt. Federer volleyed it but Djokovic’s next shot came back deep. Federer was forced into a backhand error. He served an ace for his third game point, but Djokovic angled a backhand crosscourt meticulously for a winner. A patented deep return from Djokovic lured Federer into another mistake, and gave the Serbian a much needed break point. Djokovic got his first serve return back into play, and Federer erred on a crosscourt backhand approach.
And so Djokovic had the break for 5-4, and was serving for the third set after nearly losing it. He was still not out of the woods, trailing 15-40 after Federer opened that game with a scintillating backhand down the line winner. But Djokovic saved the first break point with a clutch 123 MPH service winner down the T. Federer followed with a backhand crosscourt that landed wide. It was deuce. Federer then sliced a backhand into the net when he was on the run, and Djokovic stood right where he wanted to be, at set point. He located his 119 MPH first serve well, got the short return from Federer that he needed, and approached on the Federer backhand with authority. Federer hit the passing shot wide. From double break point down, Djokovic had swept four crucial points in a row to establish a two sets to one lead.
The match was two hours and thirty three minutes old, and Federer seemed fatigued as the fourth set unfolded. At 30-30 in the first game, he lost a debilitating 22 shot exchange. The Swiss still made it back to deuce, but Djokovic reached out and grabbed the next two points and had the immediate break for 1-0. He held at 30 for 2-0 and his confidence was strikingly apparent. Both players kept holding, but Djokovic was down break point when he served at 3-2. A weary Federer drove a crosscourt forehand wide, and Djokovic held on for 4-2.
Now the Serbian went full force after the insurance break. Federer served at 40-30 in that seventh game. Djokovic angled a backhand volley at an acute angle. Federer moved forward and steered a backhand down the line, but Djokovic retreated in a sprightly manner and flicked a lob crosscourt. Federer tried to get back for an arduous smash but barely made contact with the ball. It was deuce. Federer netted a forehand approach to put himself break point down, and went to the serve-and-volley. But Djokovic’s forehand return was pretty as a picture, landing for an outright winner. He had built a 5-2 lead in the fourth with a two service break lead.
He raced to the changeover, fully believing he was going to win, delighted to have the extra service break in hand. Serving for the match at 5-2, he was up 15-0, but then missed an awkward backhand down the line off an angled backhand from Federer. Federer went to the S.A.B.R. again and it set up an overhead winner for 15-30. A sparkling backhand crosscourt winner propelled Federer to 15-40, but Djokovic served an ace on the next point. Yet Federer was full of life again. He used a deep forehand approach to set up a gorgeous backhand drop volley winner. Federer had broken back. The crowd was stirring again, and then Federer held at 30 for 4-5 with a running forehand passing shot crosscourt.
Now Djokovic had his second chance to serve it out, but once again he drifted straight into the face of danger. With Djokovic serving at 15-30, Federer executed his best short, low, backhand chipped return of the match, drawing the Serbian forward. Djokovic could not get much on his approach, and Federer majestically released a winning backhand crosscourt passing shot. It was 15-40. Federer would have two chances to make it all the way back to 5-5. At 15-40, Djokovic hit a fine second serve, and Federer could not handle the forehand return. One point later, Djokovic surged to deuce with a 123 MPH first serve to the backhand that was unmanageable for Federer. Yet Federer was not through with his late match heroics. He cracked a backhand down the line winner to create a third break point opportunity. But Djokovic was resolute. He held his ground. Federer sliced a backhand long. It was deuce again. Djokovic unleashed another excellent first serve to the backhand that Federer netted off the backhand, and at long last for the Serbian he was at match point. This time he sent a first serve down the T to the Federer forehand, and the return was long. Djokovic came through 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 in three hours and twenty minutes. Djokovic was never at his very best in this encounter, but he played the big points better than Federer, converting 6 of 13 break points. Federer converted only 4 of 23 break points. That was the essential difference between the two competitors. In turn, Djokovic had only 31 unforced errors off the ground while Federer made 46. Most importantly for the Swiss, he had 29 of those unprovoked mistakes off the forehand side.
The feeling grows that it will not be impossible for Federer to collect another Grand Slam title, but the task will not get any easier. He once had a 10-1 record in major finals but now he is 17-10. The best of five set format unmistakably works against him in the latter stages of the big events. He is irrefutably the second best player in the world but now Djokovic has beaten the Swiss in their last three Grand Slam tournament finals. They stand at 21-21 in their career series. Djokovic may make this his best year yet. In 2011, he also won three of the four majors, but this year he has captured three Grand Slam titles again while making it to all four finals.
Novak Djokovic has played many better major finals than this one, but his grace under pressure this time was enormously impressive. He captured the United States Open for the second time, and this was a title run that was long overdue. He is a great player with a growing awareness of what he can do and how he can stay on top.