Tennis needs Djokovic to be at his best
In Part One of this series, I reflected on what great tennis Soderling had to play in Paris to break Federer’s astounding streak of 23 Grand Slam semi finals. In this piece I talk about the other match that sticks out to me when I look back at 2010, and why the result was a good thing for the sport—even if it came at the expense of a much awaited Federer-Nadal US Open final.
Djokovic vs. Federer, US Open Semi Final
The US Open final was arguably the better match. The first two and a half sets of the Djokovic-Nadal encounter were high quality, before Djokovic ran out of gas and the result was never in doubt. There was also the aspect of Nadal going for the Career Slam, and it made for a tremendous memory for the neutral.
The semi final, however, was more dramatic. Until the final Federer forehand had gone past the sideline, you couldn’t be sure of the outcome. The match had its ups and downs, with Djokovic drawing first blood and then Federer coming back to take the opening set. Sets two and four ended up with lopsided scores for Djokovic, which Federer admitted weeks later he put in half hearted efforts to in order to conserve energy for the final.
As a Federer fan, I had half an eye on the clock throughout. It would be a feast to see a Nadal against Federer final at the US Open, but a shame if Federer was to get there depleted of energy. Inevitably, it would also take away from a Nadal win if that came to be, with many fans and experts never quite giving the challenger enough credit. And that would be a shame considering that Nadal was fully capable of beating a fresh Federer.
As it is, the evils of Super Saturday managed to bring down the quality of the match.
Federer refused to fight back in sets two and four, such was his confidence in his ability to turn it on at the right time. But Djokovic, with a finish line in sight, was up to the task.
The first four sets had lasted two and a half hours. Physically, it hadn’t been a most strenuous match. The winner would likely wrap it up in forty minutes or so and be fresh enough for the final. The stakes were high, and so were the adrenaline levels.
What followed was one of the most compelling sets of the year. What it might have lacked in quality at times, it made up for it with suspense and drama.
The rallies were wild. Djokovic tried to control center. Federer looked to dominate with his ‘fearhand.’ The Serb was equal to the task, bringing the best out of his own forehand. Federer served, scrambled and sliced to fend off the Djokovic onslaught. It worked, and then it didn’t.
At 3-3 it looked like Federer might crack under the pressure—he missed a sitter on game point, subsequently going down a break point. After multiple deuces, he managed to hang on. That looked to be the turning point as he continued to create chances on his return games.
Djokovic, whose nerve had failed him at crunch times in the first and third sets, refused to buckle. It couldn’t have been easy for him to believe he could beat Federer after having lost to him at the same venue the past three years. Perhaps that’s what helped him. Down a double match point, he swung for the fences with his “eyes closed” and struck clean forehand winners.
One shot I felt Federer did not make use of was the slice backhand up the line to Djokovic’s forehand. Djokovic’s forehand is more prone to breaking down than his backhand, and even though he was hitting it as well as he ever has that day, he was never made to deal with that nasty slice of Federer’s.
Instead Federer continued to use the slice cross court, which eventually wore out its effectiveness. Realizing that, he hit more topspin backhands, but those landed way too short and right into the Serb’s hitting zone. His forehand eventually capitulated and Djokovic got his break.
It was just the second time since 2003 that Federer had lost in three successive Slams, and as with any major defeat of his, another incredible streak came to an end. This time he was going for a 7th successive US Open final appearance. And it would be the only time in those seven years that Nadal had finally made it.
But if tennis lost out on a Nadal-Federer final in New York, it gained back Djokovic. The Serb had settled for a second tier reputation for the past two years despite hanging around in the top four, unable to get to a Slam final since the 2008 Australian Open, not to mention a number of poor losses.
He needed a big win to rejuvenate him, and beating Federer at the mammoth Arthur Ashe was a great comeback stage. It was nice to see him breakthrough again.
Federer and Nadal’s choke hold on tennis is fun to watch, but its better when their closest peers are playing lights out, or in Djokovic’s case, with their eyes closed.