After his defeat to Novak Djokovic at the US Open, Roger Federer once and for all showed the two qualities of a bona fide champion: his tremendous fighting spirit against a younger, more determined opponent, and his gracious words at the post-match news conference.
The semifinal encounter between these two rivals was riveting from the start, an instant classic, and had both players elevating their games time and again as the pressure mounted. But what stood out was Federer's persistence as his Serbian rival kept coming back at him.
After losing a close first set, which saw him break Federer's serve at one stage, Djokovic won the second in convincing fashion, pushing Federer back with his cleanly-struck groundstrokes, and taking full advantage of his opponent's slight dip in form.
The Swiss struck back in the third set, with the aggressive, hit-on-a-dime play that has instilled fear in his opponents and made him a living legend in the tennis world. He broke Djokovic's serve to love at 6-5 up, with crafty service returns and monumental forehands—cannons wrapped in flowers.
The young Serb was about to self-implode, the Swiss was first ecstatic, and then as unperturbed as a man about to sit down to an evening meal.
This ebb and flow continued, as Djokovic again won a set, the fourth, in similar convincing fashion as the second, his sharply angled groundstrokes stretching his rival to the limit.
How many can claim to be able to consistently bring out Federer's usually dormant, but equally impressive defensive abilities?
Federer finally broke the pattern in the fifth set, one of the most enthralling in recent memory.
The tension throughout was palpable, not only because of what was at stake for both players, but because of all the near misses and highly charged games.
Djokovic threw everything at his older rival, and yet the latter absorbed it all through most of that set, answering missiles with missiles of his own.
At his best, the Serb is a daunting player, especially on the hard courts he favors, his strike-first ability almost matching that of his Swiss rival. And he was certainly at his best in that match.
Federer hung from the baseline with one of the most feared shot-makers in the modern game, and was one point away from victory.
Djokovic's unbelievable courage in saving those two match points with aggressive shots, probably took the wind out of Federer's sails at the end, as did the tenacity of his younger opponent.
At the news conference after the match, Federer was the model of grace, deflecting a barrage of questions about his supposed weaknesses in that match, with positive remarks about his game and that of his rival's.
When asked about his fitness, he responded that he came into the match "perfectly ready" and that he "felt good out there."
After he was prodded to dissect his groundstrokes, he simply said that he doesn't blame his loss on his forehand, which was misfiring towards the end, and had "no problems" with the backhand.
This interview is such a contrast to the one Federer gave after his Wimbledon defeat, and shows a new maturity and sense of belief in his accomplishments. It seems he now just wants to move forward with his career and enjoy the competition from the emerging talent.
Federer said something that shows the respect he has for his rival, Djokovic, and rightly contradicts the predictions of many a fan and pundit, who were quick to relegate the mighty Serb to second place.
"The guys who overlooked him don't know anything about tennis, unfortunately." Well said, Mr. Federer.
He also added his opinion on Djokovic's chances in the final versus No.1 ranked Rafael Nadal: "Novak has a shot, and I wish him the best."
I must admit, I have written a lot on the Swiss maestro since the beginning of the season—mostly critiques on comments he made before and after certain matches, and his occasional reluctance to accept losses to his rivals. But I can now happily close the book on further criticisms.
Federer, complete with new coach and renewed love of the game and his craft, is ready for one final push to add to his already staggering résumé.
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