NEW YORK—The No. 1 player in the world has his opponent on the ropes now, and the 24,000 tennis fans sitting tight as tuna in the grand stadium in Queens have forgot the three hours they waited for the rain to stop and the nearly three hours more it took to get from the first serve—an ace that drew an approving cheer—to this dreaded point, the point when it all ends, the tournament ends, the show ends, and ends the awe-inspiring quest of the favorite to add one more trophy to the five he won here in what seems like long ago.
Roger Federer, ranked No. 2 in the world, is down 2-5 in the fourth set. His tenacious opponent, who lifted the trophy here once before, 2011—beating Federer in a nailbiting come-from-behind semi-final match—has just been broken for the second time in the set, unable to close from 40-30. Novak Djokovic, beaten by Federer just a few weeks ago at Cincinnati, frustrated his opportunities to hold, humiliating him on game-point with a superb pass as the maestro attempted a serve-and-volley to save the break.
The tall lean man from Belgrade serves for set and match.
Federer, after slashing and volleying and acing his way through two weeks of play so flawless he has never been broken or lost a set, plays his game. Now he dashes into the Serb’s second serve and executes a perfect sabre, the new tactic he has been using to snatch the initiative from the man on serve.
Standing for stealth-attack-by-Roger, it consists of grabbing a (relatively) cautious second serve the moment it hits the ground in a shot called the half-volley. He has not used it much, Djokovic is too fast and too determined for the disorienting shock it causes; in fact, in the last try it served only to give him an easy winner, whamming it back past Federer, propelled by his play toward the net.
Federer follows this with a more conventional attack to the net, making one of the graceful smashes on a return toward the middle, perfect footwork to get into place and smash the descending volley. A backhand winner and suddenly it is 15-40, double break point. The crowd roars.
Federer has brought the game up to his supreme level, three distinct tactical attacks in a single game and now he is going for one more: just like him, just like his scrambling rival, the only thing that matters is the point. Play the point, play it your way.
Djokovic hits an ace up the middle to save one break point. On the second, Federer hits a hard return back to the baseline which Djokovic sends back just a little late, a little high, a little to the left of the man in white who has moved to the net. He catches it with a swift backhand volley to the side, unreturnable.
The seamless Federer offensive is back, and with a couple of running volleys that Ballanchine could claim for his own, followed by a drop shot that pulls Djokovic to the net and sets him up for a pass, it’s hold , 4-5. Will it happen?
It has been a tournament of come-backs-from-the-brink, grit, and courage. Fabio Fognini came from behind to snatch an epic five-setter from the mighty man of Majorca, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray, world No. 3, also came from two down to stay in the draw—though in both cases the efforts took their toll and exit soon followed. Federer is down two, but he has one, having taken the second set. But it required extra innings as he beat an exhausted Djokovic in the 12th game.
Does offense beat defense? Even at Wimbledon, where they last met in a final in July, and where the grass surface favors very fast aggressive tactics, Djokovic’s astonishing capacity to get almost everything back fiercely and eventually set up an opportunity to unleash a winner overcame the man from Basel, as it did at last years’ Wimbledon final. By now the question might be considered settled.
But that would be to deny one’s nature. Federer can turn himself into a defensive specialist no more than Roberta Vinci can exchange her classic artistry for the power game she faced when meeting the favored, defending champion Serena Williams in the ladies’ semifinal on Friday. You play the game you know. Miss Williams could not find a way to unleash her strengths against the small Italian’s persistent game of maneuver and movement.
It is probably one of the reasons for the sell-out crowds at Flushing Meadows. The Open broke records for attendance and revenue—700,000 fans over two weeks and ticket revenue of $100 million, according to a report by Forbes’ Kurt Badenhausen. Total revenue is two or three times that figure, and will be rising as new television deals kick in and the grounds of the Billie Jean King Center are renovated to accommodate still more visitors.
What the fans see is human nature expressing itself in the carefully structured format of the court’s dimension and the sport’s rules. Your character is on full display. And, in fact, this is what we are seeing in this match, you cannot fail to recognize in Federer, under the imperturbable Swiss flegm, a man of passion and dash; you cannot miss in Djokovic the tenacity and courage of the boy who found shelters to learn this game while his city was under aerial bombardment.
Federer and Djokovic know each other—they have played over 40 matches, come out even. They know what the other man will do. They know what they can do. They go all out and do it.
Federer stays on his game and, capitalizing on a Djokovic error that evens the score early, he aggressively attacks the net after his return of serve, a dangerous ploy a man less sure of his own nature would not try when the other one is serving for the match, and it works. He has two chances to break, take the set again into extra innings and take the match into a decider. He steps sideways from the next serve in order to get a forehand on it, a bold tactic against as good a server as Djokovic. His nimble feet are where they should be, but the arm is fraction of a second late, sending the return out of bounds. Djokovic stays on his game too, of course, and now he sends a 123 mph serve up the middle to Federer’s backhand to get to the brief respite of deuce.
Mental? Does the frustration that a defensive player brings to his opponent finally outweigh the surprise and shock the offensive one brings to his? Federer hits a perfect return of serve down the line with his backhand to get yet another chance at break. But once again he retreats to his defensive strength, gets the next point into a short baseline rally which, as it has almost always throughout the match, leads to a Federer long shot. He hits another mighty first serve which this time Federer nets. Championship point. Since it worked, try it again.
Djoovic has been piling up evidence for the defense side of the perennial argument. He now has won 10 Slams, to Federer’s 17, and as the runner-up generously stated right after the match, there will surely be many more. And the champ himself acknowledged how much he owes to his development to Roger Federer, whom he, too, fully expects to stick around a few more years and add to his collection of trophies. Federer and Serena Williams, 34 and 33, were expected to make history last week; the one by winning the Grand Slam (the whole circuit in a singe calendar year), the other by returning to New York glory after six years of not making it to the finals. No one doubts they will try again.
Tennis is an open-ended game, in a way, with more comebacks than in most sports, however unexpected they seem at times, and more ups and downs in players’ careers. American men’s tennis has been rather weak of late, compared to Serbian or Spanish or Swiss tennis, but two American boys, Tommy Paul and Taylor Fritz, competed in the juniors final earlier in the day, and two of their pals won the year’s earlier Grand Slam circuit juniors, at Paris and Wimbledon. The girls are fine too, with several on their way to back up the ones already there.
No better place than New York to know the future is open, if you stick to your nature and play your game.