Novak Djokovic hasn’t made it easy—not for himself and not for those who backed him from the start.
It’s been three years since he lost his first major final at the 2007 US Open to Roger Federer, who actually said that the straight-set result belied the match’s competitiveness. Only months later, Djokovic had finally pulled through, winning the Australian Open and beating Federer along the way.
Djokovic looked to have the whole package required for greatness: marvelous athleticism, a complete game centered on heavy groundstrokes and, crucially, a hunger to be the best. Late that spring, he faced off with Rafael Nadal in the semifinals of Roland Garros, in his fifth consecutive major semi.
Nadal was in the midst of the best form of his entire career though, and won it in straights. After winning just six games in the first two sets, the Serb dug in to force a tiebreak in the third—in the process, winning more games against the ascendant Spaniard than anyone else in that tournament would.
But that loss still looked to have hit him hard. His semifinal streak ended at Wimbledon, and though he regained it at the US Open, that’s the round where he fell to Federer.
That sequence of losses haunted Djokovic pretty much until today. At Wimbledon 2009, he got back to the quarterfinal stage, a streak that he has kept going at every major since, but something intangible seemed to impede him on big occasions.
Sometimes the competition has just been too tough, like in Federer’s semifinal wins over him at the last two Opens.
His well-known but still undiagnosed breathing problems derailed him at this year’s Australian Open against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. But his later defeats this year were just maddening, like losing to Jurgen Melzer despite being up two sets and a break this year in Paris, and double-faulting away his final service game against Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon.
Nonetheless, he went into this year’s US Open with the ATP Tour’s third-best record at the majors. Following a five-set test in his opening round match against countryman Viktor Trocki, he face a new set of tests: one after another came Philipp Petzschner of Germany, James Blake and Mardy Fish of the United States, and Gael Monfils of France.
All of these flashy, explosive players presented challenges for the Serb, who prefers to stretch opponents into long rallies so that he can employ his superb counterpunching skills, enabled by superlative flexibility and balance that allow him to hit authoritatively on the run.
After all, while his body may have betrayed him at the Australian this year, Tsonga’s flat, streaky hitting had done a lot to keep him off balance until those breathing problems set in.
Against Petzschner, Djokovic struggled to finish the match: breaking to go ahead, then surrendering the break back, then finally winning 8-6 in the tiebreak. Upon winning, he looked to the New York skyline and released a roar the reverberated throughout the stadium.
He seemed to know a corner had been turned, even if it would take the rest of us a while to catch up to his realization.
Down went Blake, Fish, and Monfils, all in straight sets and each more decisive than the last as the Serb came to embrace first-strike tennis. Against Federer in the semis, more patience was going to be required, but he’d be returning to the game plan he knew best.
That game plan would be critical: If Roger Federer is allowed to use his full range of weapons, there’s no tennis player on earth who can stop him. Those who have known the most success against him, be it Nadal or David Nalbandian, have done so by finding a way to limit his arsenal. Usually, it involves counterpunching, and forcing the Great Swiss into going for more than he’s comfortable with. It starts with the return of serve.
At last year’s event, as Federer was cruising through the first two sets against Robin Soderling, Darren Cahill noted that the Swiss’ first serve percentage had been very high because the big Swede was not forcing him to go for more than he was comfortable with.
Against a good returner who also moves well—Cahill named Nadal and Andy Murray as examples—Federer’s first serve percentage has been known to drop as he tries to add about 5 mph more to it.
Cahill can now add Djokovic’s name to that list: Against Soderling in the previous round, Federer’s first serve percentage was 64 and he won 86 percent of the points when it went in the box. Against the Serb today, it dropped to 53, and it’s probably not a coincidence that the percentage of points won on first serve also fell to 74.
Djokovic has learned to play aggressively, but successfully turned the semi into a contest of patience. That Federer has more weapons than Djokovic was not undermined by the outcome today—he hit 48 winners to Djokovic’s 36—but the Serb managed to coax 66 unforced errors out of him, and committed just 38.
“He pushed me to make those (errors),” Federer said after the match. “So credit to him.”
Furthermore, given how many questions there have been about Djokovic’s fortitude, he succeeded in holding off two match points at the end, then dug out of a love-30 hole while serving for the match. When Federer’s final forehand landed wide, Djokovic had earned a reckoning with Nadal in the final.
The man who started the Serb’s spiral more than two years ago now stands in the way of his return to the winner’s circle. The Spaniard has won 14 of their 21 matches, but Djokovic has won seven of 10 on hard courts. Nadal hits with heavier spin than Djokovic—or anyone else—but the Serb’s more outwardly directed forehand has been useful in keeping the Spaniard on the defensive.
After five physically and emotionally draining sets today however, a fresh Nadal is probably the least desirable assignment imaginable on the very next day. With Nadal serving and driving the ball better than ever on hard courts, Djokovic is going to have to go the distance again if he wants to win his second major.
I doubt he’ll have enough left to win on Sunday and I think he will succumb in either four or five sets. But following his win over Federer, the wait for Djokovic’s second doesn’t all that distant.
For all he’s been through, he’s still just 23.
After spending much of this year planting seeds, the man from Belgrade’s bounty is just beginning.