FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. — Rafal Nadal insists that if you keep patiently plugging away against Roger Federer, keep grinding, you’ll eventually wear him down, get into his head and force him to make errors. But, the Spaniard cautions, there are no such tactics, no backup plans, no solutions against the best-of-all-the-rest Serb Novak Djokovic.
There’s ample reason for Nadal’s pessimism. After all, the world’s second-ranked player has lost his last five decisions to the 24-year-old from Belgrade, all in finals. And who could argue with Djokovic’s lopsided record (19-2) against top-10 competition this year?
On Saturday, No. 3 Federer attempted to find solution for No. 1 Djokovic. He had beaten him in June, cutting his Serbian foe’s incredible 43-match winning streak short in the Roland Garros semis. He’s one of only two men to defeat Djokovic this year. But Federer, appearing in his eighth consecutive U.S. Open semifinal, couldn’t find that solution, surrendering a two-sets-to-one advantage and squandering two match points in a 6-7(7), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 shocker.
It marked their fifth straight faceoff at the Open, having met in the ’07 final, and the ’08, ’09 and ’10 semis.
“It’s disappointing, but I have only myself to blame,” said Fededer, who came to New York seeking his sixth U.S. Open trophy. “Look, it happens sometimes. That’s why we all watch sports, isn’t it? Because we don’t know the outcome and everybody has a chance, and until the very moment it can still turn. That’s what we love about the sport, but it’s also very cruel and tough sometimes. It got me today. It hurts, but it’s fine. Could be worse. It could be a final.”
Federer took the evenly played first set in a tense 9-7 tiebreaker, and kept that momentum going early in second. Ahead 1-0, the Swiss set up the first break-point opportunities of the match, capitalizing on his third try when he slugged a down-the-line forehand winner that his opponent could only watch. Djokovic didn’t get his first break-point chance until the sixth game of the second set, but he made the most of it, evening the stanza at 3-3 as a Federer forehand sailed long.
Federer’s response? Another break of his own. At love. Before the Flushing faithful knew it, the 30-year-old had staked himself to a commanding 2-0 lead.
But Djokovic — by far the tour’s fittest, most focused player of 2011 — hung in there. Putting pressure on Federer’s serve early in the third set, he jumped out to a 3-0 advantage. He wasn’t about to go away easily. Flattening out his shots and hitting with more authority, the USO’s top-seed sent the match into a fourth set. Then a fifth.
This one just had to go five, didn’t it?
The first opening for either player came in eighth game. With Djokovic suddenly struggling with his serve, Fededer broke him at love. He subsequently served for the match at 5-3, momentum seemingly on his side now.
Then a funny thing happened. With Federer up 40-15 and but a point away from reaching the final, Djokovic took a risk and absolutely crushed a forehand return. It was a clean winner — as gutsy a shot as you’ll see in tennis, and one that won’t soon be forgotten.
Asked if Djokovic’s match-point gamble was more a function or of luck or of confidence, Federer glared, “Confidence? Are you kidding me? I mean, please. Look, some players grow up and play like that…I never played that way. I believe in the hard-work’s-going-to-pay-off kind of thing…For me, this is very hard to understand how can you play a shot like that on match point.”
“If you’re playing somebody like Roger, you have to take your chances when they’re presented — otherwise you’re losing a match,” said Djokovic, who’s seeking his fourth career Slam title. “He was serving for the match. He has match points, and I could easily lose.”
After burying the return, Djokovic raised his arms to the crowd, which, until that point, had understandably been backing his opponent, a five-time U.S. Open champion. But he got their attention and with it some much deserved love. It was unmistakably a turning point.
Win the crowd.
“I needed to get some energy from the crowd. It’s kind of normal to expect that maybe they’re a little bit more on his side because he’s somebody that has won this tournament five years. [The] crowd loves him everywhere, especially here. So it was okay. It was no surprise. But I thought at that certain moment I needed to get a little bit of the crowd energy behind my back and try to get back into the match, and I did.”
With another match point on his racket, Federer swatted a forehand that caught the net cord and floated wide. Having surrendered two match points, he eventually double-faulted the break away. Djokovic seized the moment and turned the match around for good. He held his serve to even the score at 5-5; broke Federer to go up 6-5; then served out one of the greatest comebacks of his surefire Hall of Fame career, and one of the most memorable matches in U.S. Open history.
“It’s probably, under the circumstances, the greatest victory I had in 2011,” said Djokovic, which is saying something considering his accomplishments over the past 10 months. “Why? Because I was two sets down, and I haven’t won many matches in my life when I was two sets down…Especially against Roger, who we all are aware of his quality. When he’s a set or two sets up, he doesn’t let you win.”
“[He] snaps one shot, and then the whole thing changes,” said a disappointed Federer. “It’s strange how it goes.”
Federer was a perfect 178-0 in Slam matches after having won the first two sets until Wimbledon, when he fell to Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. With his loss to Djokovic in New York, it’s now 178-2.
The victory drew obvious parallels to this tournament in 2010, when Djokovic pulled off the same feat against Federer in the semis, saving two match points at 4-5, 15-40 in the final set to win 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5.
For now, Nole awaits the winner of the Nadal-Andy Murray semifinal. Should it be Rafa that prevails, we’re in for a rematch of last year’s U.S. Open final. Only this time around, the Spaniard won’t come in as the runaway favorite.