FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. — The backlogged schedule resulting from last week’s rainouts meant that all four semifinals were contested Saturday at the U.S. Open.
But the first alone was worth the price of admission, as well as cab fare, snacks and souvenirs, with top-seeded Novak Djokovic storming back from a two-sets-to-none deficit and fending off two match points to defeat five-time champion Roger Federer for a place in Monday’s final.
With the 6-7 (9-7), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 victory, the 24-year-old Djokovic boosted his record this remarkable season to 63-2. He also brought to an end Federer’s streak of having won at least one major title each year since 2003, the U.S. Open being the season’s fourth and final Grand Slam event.
Djokovic moves on to face defending champion Rafael Nadal on Monday in a reprise of last year’s final. Nadal had little trouble handling fourth-seed Andy Murray in their semifinal, which didn’t get under way until shortly after 5:30 p.m.
Nadal played his best tennis of the tournament in defeating Murray, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2, finishing with 31 winners and 23 unforced errors and breaking the Scot’s serve six times.
But Nadal is well aware he faces a monumental task Monday afternoon against Djokovic, who has beaten him all five times they have met this season — on clay, grass and hard court.
“He’s obviously the favorite for the final,” Nadal said, “and I know I have to do something better than the other matches to try to change the situation.”
If the end of Federer’s eight-year streak of Grand Slam victories shook his belief in his ability, there was no evidence of it in his press conference afterward. Despite his obvious disappointment in the outcome, the Swiss made plain that he felt he had played the better match and would have—should have—won, had it not been for the preposterously risky service return that Djokovic ripped to stave off the first match point.
“Today I clearly felt like I never should have lost,” said Federer, 30, who holds a record 16 major titles. “There’s no more I could do. [Djokovic] snaps one shot, and then the whole thing changes.”
The match was hardly as fluky as that. Rather, it was an exceptional battle of shot-making, nerve and resolve played out over 3 hours 51 minutes, in which Federer held sway early on, Djokovic clawed back and the momentum caromed between the two in the 55-minute fifth set.
It was battle of exceptional talent, with Djokovic and Federer working each other over more like puppeteers than sparring partners, winning points on artistry and guile rather than brute force.
And it was a battle between two fine sportsmen, with neither player indulging in gamesmanship, feigning injury, bashing rackets or lashing out at line calls. There wasn’t so much as an arched eyebrow exchanged; just beautiful shots.
But the shot that annoyed Federer so — with the Swiss serving for the match at 5-3 and 40-15 — was a window on how different the two players’ psyches are how different their approach to the game.
With a place in Monday’s final at stake, the Swiss stepped to the baseline, his stoic face betraying no sign of tension, struck an adequate though hardly spectacular first serve.
Djokovic unleashed every ounce of power in his 6-2 frame in the reply, blasting his return cross-court at an irretrievable angle without a millimeter’s margin for error. It was the most audacious winner of the match, and the capacity crowd on Arthur Ashe Stadium cheered Djokovic’s abandon.
“I had to take my chances,” Djokovic explained later. “I was very close to being on my way back home.”
Still facing match point, Djokovic turned to the stands and extended both arms, motioning for an even greater display of love for his heroics.
Federer’s next serve had more bite, spinning into Djokovic’s body. The Serb blocked it back, and Federer’s forehand reply tripped the net cord and fell wide.
Djokovic went on to break Federer and get back on serve. From there, he went on a tear, and nearly everything Federer tried went awry.
“Look, it happens sometimes,” Federer said. “That’s why we all watch sports, isn’t it? Because we don’t know the outcome, and everybody has a chance. And until the very moment, it can still turn. That’s what we love about the sport. But it’s also very cruel and tough sometimes.”