There were many different possible reactions to the last 10 minutes of the US Open Men's semifinal between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, but they would by and large have been a smorgasbord of stupefaction, disappointment, grief, anger, surprise and delight.
Depending, of course, on which side of the fence one stood.
The almost incomprehensible series of events must have been nightmarish for Federer and his fans. Serving at double match point, he had to endure a Djokovic return winner the likes of which splendour and magic had not been seen on Arthur Ashe Stadium, since Federer's own immortal tweener in a similar scenario two years ago.
This time it was Djokovic who hit the stunner, and Djokovic who had the last word. Some 10 or so minutes later, a Federer return slice floated long. Fewer more dramatic moments have there been in the annals of Grand Slam tennis.
It is all to easy to dismiss the last four games of this match as indicative of some 'changing of the guard' moment. Federer had the match in his hands, with serve to come for the match. He had come close to inflicting the jugular—instead, it was that dazzling forehand winner by Djokovic that would strike the killer blow.
Certainly, it was a collapse quite unimaginable for Federer. But this is the new world of tennis, the era of Novak Djokovic. It was all along supposed to happen like this, match points against him or not. That forehand return winner had the scent of destiny all over it.
Maybe resorting to some idea of 'luck' or destiny is the only way Federer could console himself. But he needs no consoling. His match against Novak Djokovic, defeat though it may have been, may well have made him all the more a GOAT than ever.
If we detach ourselves from the shock and disappointment of it all, we discern some very pivotal and significant facts about the whole matter.
For one thing, Federer turned 30 this year, and made the semifinal of the first major after that milestone. Reaching the semifinals this year was a feat in itself, and tied him with Ivan Lendl as the only other man in the Open era to have reached eight consecutive semis at the US Open.
Moreover, Federer has made the semis or better at three of the four majors this year, something Pete Sampras, for example, could hardly compare with when he turned 30 in 2001. That year he fell a dismal 7-6, 6-1, 6-1 loser to Hewitt in his only final appearance at the US Open.
Federer, in contrast, pushed five time French Open champion Rafael Nadal to the limit on his home turf in a tight four set loss.
Age and the experience that goes with it, have in fact been defining features of Federer's 2011. Ever the optimist, he has in fact thrived despite his all of 30 years.
There have been few better 30-year-old tennis players in history, and it was fully in evidence in his loss to Djokovic. His 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 loss was devastating, no doubt. But that Federer had come so close to beating the world No. 1 was only magnified by the Serb's magnificent, and seemingly unstoppable passage to victory over Rafael Nadal in the final.
The fact is, Federer had come the closest to eliminating Djokovic from the tournament, and this, when the Serbian was at the height of his powers. It was maybe as much a matchup as a mental thing that made Federer's five set loss all the closer than Djokovic's four set triumph over Nadal.
The Spaniard, after all, has historically encountered more difficulty in countering Djokovic's game than Federer. But the world No. 1 perhaps never tasted mortality as starkly as against Federer.
There were the moments of frustration, anguish, despair and pleading looks towards the heavens, we thought had been suppressed in 2011. But Federer had the power to revive a sense of inferiority and that horrifying concept—doubt.
For two sets, victory for Federer looked almost unquestionable. All this at an age when he was supposed to be in decline.
In the end, nonetheless, we were denied for the second year in a row a Grand Slam matchup we have yet to witness—Roger and Rafa at Flushing Meadows. Nadal, perhaps, might have had the better chance of defending his title, had Federer won one of those two match points.
But it was not to be. Federer's win over Djokovic was not to be. Federer was fighting destiny, as much as an unflappably confident Djokovic.
Given the circumstances and trends of history, then, we can only see this latest shocker—the second time this year Federer has squandered a two-set lead at a grand slam, to boot—in a more glorious light.
Will Nadal or Djokovic manage a feat such as this in five and six years from now against the world No. 1 of the future when they turn 30?
Sometimes in sports, winning overshadows everything, and we forget in a loss how greatness sometimes shines through even in defeat. No one can have everything, and Federer, too, can't have everything.
But in losing to Djokovic at the US Open, he actually gained. He may have lost, but he added to his already studded career another episode testifying to an inimitable, and still enduring, longevity of excellence.
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