Let me be among the many to join in the chorus about the Djokovich-Federer US Open semi-final match on Saturday, one that will be remembered for years to come, and probably remembered more than the final. Right now, Djokovich is about to put a cap on what may be the greatest tennis season of all time, leading defending champion Rafael Nadal two sets to none and on the verge of winning the third set (well, he's in a tiebreak now, but he is in control of the match, to be sure) and the US Open, barring a miraculous comeback by Rafael Nadal. This will be Djokovich's third Grand Slam victory of the year, with his only failing coming at the French Open. Yet I sense that when we look back on his career and 2011, in tennis, the first match mentioned will be his semi-final win over Federer. In this epic five set match, Djokovich effectively showed why Federer will no longer be a champion in this sport, why he and Nadal have become the kings of this sport. Djokovich bent reason with his play; and with that, destroyed Federer.
The key moment, as nearly everyone has brought up, was when Djokovich was facing a double match point in the fifth set. He had lost the first two sets; Federer looked particularly strong in the first two, playing the vintage Federer game- impeccable angles, planned shots, clean tennis, finesse. And it worked. In the third and fourth sets, though, Federer's precision started to fade, and he was physically outmatched by the pace, energy and sheer power that Djokovich was putting behind his ground strokes. Djokovich in particular started to attack Federer's backhand, which abandoned him after the first two sets. Djokovich won the third set and then proceeded to go up 5-2 in the fourth, looked to be clearly in control of the set and the match. Federer was down 40-0 in the game, and then, curiously, awoke, almost as if he planned to show Djokovich that he was not done yet, that he would bring everything for the fifth set. He brought the game to deuce behind some thundering forehands. He lost the game, and the set, but still, he had sent a message. The fifth set was to be a dogfight.
Federer took his renewed energy into the fifth set and built up his lead, trading games with Djokovich and then defiantly breaking Djokovich's serve. He was now in command, serving for the match, and he built up a 40-15 lead. Now was the double match point that will go down in history for Djokovich's career, the one in which Federer met his endgame. Djokovich was clearly angry at the crowd's jubilation that Federer was about to win; he glared, and set up to return Federer's serve, exuding bravado. This was his last stand, staring down the barrel of what seemed to be a foregone conclusion.
Federer served, and Djokovich whipped back a cross court shot that defied rational thinking or tennis strategy; here was a man playing in one of the biggest matches in his career trying the riskiest shot he could.
The crowd erupted, thinking, knowing, that that shot could've never gone in, and Federer just watches it, doesn't make a move for it, as it slides by, just hitting inside the line and then disappearing to the side. Djokovich turns toward the crowd and demands their support, for he has truly earned it. He has subjected time and space to his indomitable will.
This is when Federer has lost his match, and probably lost the chance at more majors. Federer's game, his beautiful game, is predicated on planning, on careful placement, of knowing what the other player will do and using it against him, setting his opponent up such that Federer can control the game, control where the other player will be, and he can place his shot in a place where his opponent will never reach it. He uses the other player, and sets him up to fail. But this approach is based on reason, on careful planning, on a knowledge of things as they are; and Djokovich's shot was an impossibility. Not with that pace, not with that placement, not with that speed, not with that angle. It was luck, maybe, but it was also a reflection of Djokovich- with his power and shot making ability, he is sometimes above what we, and Federer, consider to be possible.
Federer, suitably shaken, dazed, with the crowd now pulling for Djokovich, faltered, and lost the game, and then the rest of the set. There was nothing he could do. After the match, he could hardly express what had happened.
"I believe in the hard-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 like I said, sometimes in sports it just goes the other way. Maybe you've already won so much that it evens it out a bit sometimes. I don't know."
But this much was clear- this was so far outside the scope of Federer's game, of pure reason. It could only take him so far. You can't plan for the miraculous. You can't beat the impossible.