Djokovic Wins US Open

09:07 Sun 18 Sep 2011
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Last Monday (the final having been delayed for the fourth consecutive year), Novak Djokovic continued his remarkable year, winning in New York for the first time and extending his 2011 record to a ridiculous 64–2—with one of those losses from a retirement due to injury.

Djokovic became only the second player to win a Grand Slam after defeating both Federer and Nadal (Juan Martin del Potro did it at the US Open in 2009), and extended his grip on the world number one ranking through at least the end of 2011. The victory also marked his sixth consecutive win over Nadal—all of them coming in finals[1].

Winning three of the four Grand Slams in a calendar year is a remarkable accomplishment, and Djokovic is the sixth man to do it[2]. His odds of winning all four in a row seem rather good, given that he’s beaten his major rivals on all surfaces and that he beat Nadal twice on clay this year—and that it was Federer, not Nadal, who stopped him at the French Open.

The state of the men’s game, despite Djokovic’s dominance, is rather interesting at the moment. It’s all about the top three, although Murray is occasionally a factor. No other player seems to be able to challenge them consistently. Within the top three, Djokovic is some way beyond the others. The matchups between the top three favor Nadal over Federer (although not necessarily on all surfaces; particularly indoors, Federer can still beat Nadal) and Djokovic over Nadal (apparently on all surfaces, and it’s notable that in Nadal’s success against Federer, he’s had two sets of five consecutive wins but never six)… but Djokovic–Federer is much closer than the other two matchups. Much, much closer.

Which brings us to the best match of the 2011 US Open, the Djokovic–Federer semifinal. As a committed Federer partisan, that match was absolutely heartbreaking, devastatingly painful. In terms of the worst spectating experiences I’ve suffered through, it ranks right up there. Worse than the 2001 World Series. Worse than the 2004 ALCS[3]. Worse, I think, than the 2008 Wimbledon final, because the tennis in that final was amazingly superb throughout[4].

My relationship to tennis and baseball are quite different. I generally prefer individual sports, particularly to play. Tennis is something I really want to play more often, whereas baseball would be a lot further down the list. Baseball, however, has older roots for me as a spectator sport, and I feel like my Yankees allegiance is simply there, a loyalty to the concept of that team which bypasses any number of rational considerations. Including the fact that most of I would prefer to watch football[5]—so despite my preference for watching a football game over a baseball game, it’s more important to me that the Yankees win than the 49ers win[6].

I don’t know as much about baseball as I do about tennis (or football, for that matter). I understand the game[7], and appreciate a number of its intricacies, but it’s not a connoisseur’s understanding. I’ve read more about football strategy, perhaps because football has a much deeper strategic component, and appreciate it more finely than baseball. Tennis isn’t as deep strategically as football, but probably has more overt strategy than baseball, and I have a reasonable theoretical understanding of it, and a real appreciation for its particular blend of strategy, skill, and athleticism.

The tennis I follow is the main tours, male and female, and is an individual sport, so there are no teams to support. In the 80s I liked McEnroe and Connors. In the 90s, I liked Agassi, Courier, and Muster. I drifted away from the sport somewhat after that. I should note that my favorite Slam is the French Open, and has been for years; I love the greater focus on position that clay court tennis brings out, and like the fact that succeeding on it requires great endurance. So I was naturally more inclined towards players who did well on that surface.

Federer, though… I first really paid attention to him in the 2004 Wimbledon final (Federer over Roddick 4–6, 7–5, 7–6(3), 6–4), and after that was essentially pulled into paying more and more attention to the game due to the excellence of his tennis. If not for Federer, I would still love tennis, but I would probably have watched a lot less of it over the last seven years.

I think he’s the greatest male tennis player in history. I thought that before he broke Pete Sampras’ Grand Slam wins record, so there’s a certain amount of subjective aesthetic appreciation there, but I also think that there’s just no argument about it until someone beats Federer’s Slam count. I also think that his 23 Grand Slam semifinal streak is one of the most incredible accomplishments in sports—followed by his ongoing Grand Slam quarterfinals streak.

I was extremely happy when Federer beat Djokovic at Roland Garros, partly because it underscored that he was still a force to be reckoned with. I had been anticipating the Djokovic–Federer semifinal in New York as soon as the brackets were released. I thought that Federer looked very, very sharp, and that he would repeat his Paris performance to defeat Djokovic a second time this year—and then go on to a final against Nadal, a final that he’d have a far better chance of winning than he’d had at the French Open. I thought another US Open title was a significant possibility, in other words, and as the tournament went on I thought this looked more and more likely. Djokovic was also playing extraordinarily well, and I thought it could be a fantastic match.

I watched the first set, a very tight one that Federer won after missing three set points in the tiebreak. I missed the second set, which Federer won, and rejoined the match with Djokovic serving for the third. Federer’s level of play had clearly dipped, and Djokovic was demonstrating why he’s only lost twice all year. Federer was broken early in the fourth, and never really threatened thereafter. It looked like a mismatch. Serving at 1–5, Federer faced three break points… and then regained his earlier level of play, winning the game and denying Djokovic the right to serve first in the fifth. Djokovic served out the fourth, but after that it was much more even. Both players were dominant on serve, and it was a display of serving-backed power tennis, punctuated by occasional excellent rallies—rallies in which the players were relatively even. Serving at 3–4, however, Djokovic lost his concentration, and Federer broke at love.

I was nervous. That was it, surely? Federer did nothing to assuage my fears, as his first serve, so good for the entire set, suddenly deserted him. Even so, Djokovic was clearly suffering under the pressure, and Federer moved to a 40–15 lead and two match points.

The crowd had been relentlessly pro-Federer for the entire match, and now made a great deal of noise cheering him on. Djokovic, to his credit, decided that if he had to go down, he’d go down swinging. When Federer served to his forehand, Djokovic let rip one of the most amazing forehand returns I’ve ever seen, a barely-visible bullet that clipped the line (most of the crowd thought it was out) for an outright winner. Djokovic then turned to the crowd and raised his arms, basically telling them that they had to at leave give him some appreciation for that shot.

Much of the coverage of the match casts that shot as the moment when the momentum swung back to Djokovic, but it wasn’t that one shot alone. Federer still had match point, and set up his fairly classic attack of moving Djokovic out wide, getting a mid-court forehand, and… missing. It barely, barely clipped the net, but that was enough. The combination of those two shots changed the entire tenor of the situation, and all the pressure was on Federer. He was still serving; two strong serves and he’d still win the match. But he couldn’t do it; his serve, so consistent throughout the day, wouldn’t produce. He saved one break point with a service winner, but Djokovic earned another and converted it.

That only got him back to 4–5, but the match was effectively done. Djokovic played superb tennis thereafter. Federer’s best chance after that would have been to rely on his serve until he got some of his own game going again, possibly in the tiebreak, but it didn’t happen, and Djokovic broke him at 5–5 and then served out the set to take it 7–5.

It was so close. Those two forehands, Djokovic’s winner and Federer’s miss, were both a matter of inches. Before the match, and even more so after Federer went up two sets, I had such a strong feeling that Federer “should” win it (indeed, that feeling hasn’t entirely gone away). Moreover, the importance of the win—a chance at another Grand Slam title, the extension of his legacy, protecting his own candidate for “best tennis year”[8]—only added to this feeling. The strength of that feeling, the swings of the match, and the fact that he was so close to victory all made it extremely upsetting to see him lose.

I’m not at all saying that he “deserved” to win. Yes, some luck swung Djokovic’s way in that crucial game, but Federer had plenty of opportunity—even after that—to turn things around yet again. There are definitely sports in which the deserving team doesn’t always win (soccer, I think, is a prime example), but tennis isn’t like that[9], particularly not over five sets. The scoring is too well-designed for that. No, as much as it pains me to write it, Djokovic deserved to win, as demonstrated by the fact that he did win.

The year-end championships in London have a fair amount of importance now. Djokovic will certainly want to win to put the cap on his year, and perhaps to achieve the best winning percentage in the open era[10]. Federer will probably consider it important that he win something significant in his first year since 2002 without a Grand Slam title—also, if Federer were to win, it would be a record sixth YEC title. Nadal has never won it, and hasn’t seemed to make it a priority, but it might be more important to him now to make a statement about his ability to compete with Djokovic. All of the top three have even more incentive to do well at it than usual, making it a potentially critical setup tournament for next year.

[1] Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome, Wimbledon, US Open, all in 2011; 3 on hard courts, 2 on clay courts, and 1 on a grass court.

[2] Rod Laver 1962/1969, Roger Federer 2004/2006/2007, Mats Wilander 1988, Rafael Nadal 2010, Novak Djokovic 2011.

[3] Perhaps only because the ALCS nightmare played out over several days.

[4] Despite that fact, though, I’ve never watched the DVD I own of the 2008 Wimbledon final… mainly because of the ending.

[5] Yes, meaning American football.

[6] My 49ers allegiance comes from before I lived in San Francisco; I’ve been a fan since 1986, won over by their style of play and Montana/Rice/Young. It irks me considerably that their extended period of excellence came to an end more or less at the same time I moved here.

[7] Yes, including the infield fly rule.

[8] He went 81–4 in 2005.

[9] Barring injury or other extraordinary circumstances; it’s pretty hard to say whether or not Gaudio “deserved” the win in the 2004 French Open final.

[10] McEnroe went 82–3 in 1983.

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