It was mayhem at the Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was also 5-2, 15-0 in the fourth set and Novak Djokovic was serving for the match. Three points away from the US Open championship. Three points away from his 10th Grand Slam title. If only life was so easy.
First, the man across the tape, Roger Federer, wasn’t willing to just roll over and die. And second, the other phantom across the net — the 23,000-plus strong crowd in the biggest tennis arena in the world — wouldn’t even let Djokovic serve. They hooted and howled just as they had for the last three hours in a manner that even Federer didn’t ‘consider normal’. They were simply refusing to let their man go down quietly.
So Federer didn’t.
Amid an explosion of noise, Federer pumped his fist as Djokovic missed his backhand down the line. 15-all. Stirred, Djokovic bounced the ball on the baseline until the stands stopped moving. But he couldn’t stop the Swiss from doing the same. Federer, like he had done all tournament long, employed his new service return — a sneak up to the service-line to greet a second serve. And before Djokovic could know what slapped him, the crowd favourite was already putting away his volley at the net. 15-30.
That very sneak, known as the SABR (Sneak Attack By Roger), was one of the many reasons for Federer recapturing hearts in New York and around the world over the last couple of weeks. Just this August, the month Federer turned 34, he had pushed the envelope of attacking tennis by inventing, as Djokovic would put it, “a shot that nobody has ever seen”.
It was a shot that Djokovic first saw during his straight sets defeat in Cincinnati a couple of weeks ago. It was a shot that further armed Federer’s already ample repertoire here for the final Slam of the year, helping him breeze past his first six rounds without as much as coming close to dropping a set. A far cry from the current scenario that Federer found himself in — battling, but battling well, to stay in the match.
It was soon 15-40 after Federer, positioned in the centre of his baseline, first yanked Djokovic to the right corner of his court with a flawless forehand and then left Djokovic static and cussing by booming a backhand to the left tramline. The winner gave Federer two break points. But on Sunday evening, Federer was far less fond of break points than break points were of Federer.
Out of 19 previous break points — 19 gifts to break an unbreakable serve — that Federer had earned with much blood, toil and sweat over the course of this match, he had converted just three. So when Djokovic thundered down an ace, only his third of the day (the only thing worse than Federer’s clutch play was his opponent’s ability to find any rhythm on his first serves), it seemed like the Swiss had squandered yet another vital chance.
But he floated to the net next point, snapped his wrist to execute an exquisite volley winner and broke right back. “C’moooooon!” growled the Swiss. And the match, rendered asystolic till a moment ago, feverishly spiked.
Federer held serve quite easily to make it 5-4. The much encouraged fightback, though, would amount to nothing if he didn’t break Djokovic’s serve again. Twice in two occasions, a feat even by Federer’s standards. Said feat was all but achieved when the world number two passed a gliding world number one at the net to earn two more break points. The match was a Federer point away from turning into an epic. And the epic’s villain was left hopelessly staring at his corner — the only surface area in this arena that cared — hoping to rewrite this tale.
“Roger’s just not going away,” he would say later, without mincing his words. “But that’s who Roger is. And I knew that coming to the court. So I was ready for it. I was ready for the battle.”
That’s no lie. Only a handful of sportspersons, across the board, have Djokovic’s natural and in-born ability to back self in the face of such adversity. And almost no other tennis player can sponge in pressure quite like this man from Belgrade. Don’t let the word ‘pressure’ fool you though; it cannot come close to describing what Djokovic must’ve experienced at 15-40 in the tenth game of the fourth set, cold crowd and hot Federer in tow.
“At that point I could feel that the momentum had switched sides,” Djokovic said. “It was anybody’s game at this point. It was very even. You know, serving wasn’t really a strong link for me tonight. But I had to deal with it.”
‘Dealing with it’ cannot be taught. It must be learned. And clearly Djokovic has learned well. He first cut the crowd out of the equation by focussing on those supporting him (his box and some ten others) and then played each point like his last. “Obviously much easier said than done.”
But within seconds, it was done as easily as it was said. He rallied back to deuce and clutch-played two enormous serves (122 and 121 mph respectively), both service winners, to rob Federer and the crowd of a much deserved final set. Djokovic had won his second US Open in six attempts. Federer had lost his second straight Grand Slam final to Djokovic.
“This. Is Spaaaaartaaaaaa!” he screamed at an amused Gerard Butler seated in the Serb’s box, quite like the actor does in the movie 300. “I was watching it last night. That’s one of the most inspiring movies I have ever watched.”
The day had begun as gloomily as the settings of the film. Dark clouds and persistent rain had kept the players twiddling their thumbs nervously in the lounge for three hours, pushing the start time from 4pm to 7pm. And once it began, Federer faced more break points, eight, in his first four service games than he did in his six matches leading up to this round. Five. Djokovic needed just one of those with a passing shot at 3-3 to take the lead. Soon enough, he had the set.
Of the last 22 US Open champions, 21 had won the first set. The exception was Juan Martin Del Potro in 2009, who incidentally pulled the wool over Federer’s eyes. The Swiss hadn’t made a final since; and to win his maiden appearance at this stage half a dozen years later, he needed to do a Del Potro on Djokovic. He needed to beat history.
History blushed when Federer took the second 7-5, despite fluffing eight break points. When he did break Djokovic in his ninth attempt, it was the very last point of the set. It meant Federer would serve first in the third set. It also meant Djokovic had a chance to break in the first game of the third set, which he promptly did. Djokovic attacked with poise to win that battle. But it was his masterful defence in the fourth which won him the war.
It made him feel like a general. A mythical Spartan general.
In that story/movie, 300 Spartans had taken on an army of 30,000 Persians and lost. A ratio of about 1:1000. Today, Djokovic alone had taken on all of Arthur Ashe and prevailed. A ratio of about 1:23,000.
His tale too shall soon become legend.