The Shot

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124529921-1FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. — There have been many great moments in sports. Bobby Thompson‘s “shot heard ‘round the world” in ’51; Ted Williams clubbing a Fenway Park homer in his last at bat. “The Play” by Cal’s rugby-like/never-say-die football team, and “The Catch,” when 49er Joe Montana hit a leaping Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone. And in tennis, there have been many great records, like Federer reaching 23 straight Slams; many great runs, like Jimmy Connors (“This is what they paid for, this is what they’ll get!”) run at the ’91 U.S. Open; and many a classic match, like Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe at Wimbledon in ‘81 or the ’08 Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer Wimbledon final. Plus, there have been many clutch shots. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario‘s drop shot from the baseline, when she was down match point at Wimbledon, or great trick shots like Federer’s ‘tweener past a stunned Novak Djokovic at the ’09 U.S. Open.

But this was “The Shot.” Call it fearless, bold or lucky, Djokovic — down match point deep into the fifth set in the U.S. Open semis before a howling throng — coldly studied Federer’s motion (so etched in his mind) and read it with both precision and the confidence of a surging player perhaps en route to the best year in tennis history. Reckless and going for broke, he stepped into the Swiss’ first serve and blasted a crosscourt laser, like James Blake at his best used to do, and shook the most unshakeable force in tennis — Federer.

This was a dagger, a statement. The triumph of a man who is younger, taller and ranked higher than the Royal Raj. But still, you just don’t do this. As the Jim Croce song (sort of) tells us, “You don’t tug on Superman‘s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger, and you don’t mess around with Roger, da do da do…”

But Djokovic did. “Freaking unbelievable,” said one fan. “How ‘ballsy’ can you get?” asked another.” The roar was raw, the feat unreal. Was it a lucky shot? Boris Becker didn’t think so. “The No. 1 player  is not lucky.  No. 50, No.100 are lucky.But there’s a reason Djokovic is No. 1. Federer used to make those shots.  People described him as lucky.  There’s a difference between No. 1 and No. 2.  It’s sometimes very small.  It’s playing the right shot at the right time.  Yes, it was a risky shot, it was a gamble.  He was fearless.  He went for it.  That’s the difference.”

“There’s an element in life about it.  In sport, you have to be born in the right place, at the right time, with the right background.  You can’t call it all ‘luck.’  I would call it destiny.”

And when he stroke his winner Djokovic, the irrepresible showman, thrust his arms in the air Rocky style and shook his fist. With a single stroke, he turned the riveting marathon. Another match point went awry for Federer, as his forehand anti-climatically tipped the net.

More than this, the entire battle had been tipped. What seconds ago seemed like a storybook triumph for the aging (“even geniuses get the blues”) Swiss master, in a flash became a devastating 6-7(7), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 defeat. For the first time in nine years, the Alpine master would fail to summit at a Slam.

Why the loss?

Roger admitted, “It’s awkward having to explain this because it’s what it is…He came back; he played well.  I didn’t play so well at the very end.  Sure, it’s disappointing, but I have only myself to blame… There’s no more I could do.  [He] snaps one shot, and then the whole thing changes.  It’s strange how it goes…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.”

Asked whether Djokovic’s shot was a matter of confidence, he sounded nonplused, giving a Jim Mora-like answer: “Confidence?  Are you kidding me?  I mean, please. Look, some players grow up and play like that.  I remember losing junior matches.  Just being down 5-2 in the third, and they all just start slapping shots.  It all goes in for some reason, because that’s the kind of way they grew up playing when they were down.  I never played that way.  I believe in hard the work’s-going-to-pay-off kind of thing, because early on maybe I didn’t always work at my hardest.  So for me, this is very hard to understand how can you play a shot like that on match point.  But…he’s been doing it for 20 years, so for him it was very normal.  You’ve got to ask him.”

We did.

“I tend to do that on match points,” said Djokovic. “It kind of works. No, it was a very similar situation like last year.  I had to take my chances.  I was very close to being on my way back home…He was 40-15 up. I managed to hit that amazing forehand return which got me back.  I got a little bit of energy from the crowd, and I fought back.  I needed to stay positive, and I definitely didn’t want Paris to happen again….But I managed to play better, to switch gears, and I managed to play two incredible sets — third and fourth.  Then I felt it’s the moment when I should step in and show what I got, and it paid off.”

No kidding.

Now Djokovic is poised to gain his 64th match of the year against just two losses; another Slam and arguably the best 12 months in the history of this sport (possibly three Slams, five Masters, 10 titles, 20 wins over top 10 players and the Davis Cup in December. All this thanks to a great stroke of courage — “The Shot” — the greatest big-stage shot heard ’round the world in the long history of this game.  Somewhere in baseball heaven, Bobby Thompson must be saying, “Been there, done that.”