Novak Djokovic, just 25 and already the best hard court player in the world – and the best returner in the protracted history of the sport, Open Era or otherwise – appeared on a pace to do what only Roger Federer has done in recent memory: win five straight US Open titles. With main rivals Federer, age 32 by the time next US Open begins, Rafael Nadal nursing what looks to be near-arthritic knees and new champion Andy Murray without any major to his credit before tonight, who would truly be favored above the five-time Grand Slam champion if healthy?
Congratulations to Murray on a career-defining win, joining coach Ivan Lendl as players who lost their first four Grand Slam finals only to say fifth time was the charm. There will be much celebration of the Briton’s breakthrough in the coming days, even years -- a first for his country since before World War II, when Fred Perry won the U.S. Championships in 1936. Features will focus on the Murray/Lendl dynamic, the chance for Murray to go on and become World No. 1, even the potential good luck charm of Sean Connery.
What may get lost is that Djokovic gave it everything a champion could, and should, in his defense: Incredible focus, nerve, and resiliency through each of the second week matches against top-10 opponents.
Call it a crazy notion, but consider that from the day he lost to Nadal to conclude the 2010 US Open, Djokovic had not been beaten at a hard court Grand Slam in 27 consecutive matches. He’s now been in 10 straight Grand Slam semifinals, in which time he’s made seven finals and won four of his five career major titles. Should his legs endure, its only the start.
Consider the 2007 run of Djokovic five years ago, his first New York final, when a 20-year-old pup was dragooned by the undisputed king of Queens, Federer, in straight sets. In fact, Federer foiled Djokovic twice more in the following years: A star at his zenith denying the heir-apparent, as crowds rooted wildly for the Swiss and in reaction to the unforced errors of the Serb in their encounters. Today, it’s the dancing, smiling Djokovic – gluten-free and off a 70-6 campaign in 2011 that ranks with the very best years in tennis history, and 60 ATP World Tour wins thus far in 2012 -- who has propelled himself up and established his niche as the one true player that the US Open now invariably runs through.
Disagree? The evidence from recent history:
Del Potro, drawn and quartered
In the quarters, the second-seeded Djokovic defeated a man in No. 7 Juan Martin del Potro – a former US Open winner, the man who rejected Federer’s bid for a sixth consecutive title in 2009 and took it for himself – who played his best match of the tournament… and still lost in straight sets. Rallies began in an 84-minute second set began with del Potro’s 130 mile-per-hour blasts, only to be denied by Djokovic with defensive lobs and sliced backhands that always eclipsed the net but never the baseline, point after brilliant, back-and-forth point.
No matter how hard del Potro scorched with his forehand returns, and no matter how far back said forehands made Djokovic retreat, sneaker heels scraping the sponsor wall, there was a positive answer to del Potro’s displeasure. He would unfailingly err when Djokovic wouldn’t by hitting long as the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd released their breath to cheer the world-class counterpunching expo. On Djokovic’s start, perfection – the champion won all 17 points on successful first serves in the second stanza.
The defeat was psychological before it was finalized on the scoreboard. Djokovic rendered the Argentine incredulous (the image of an exhausted del Potro, hunched over on the net with hands clasped will likely become one of the icons for Djokovic’s play in Open lore), then frustrated (as del Potro frequently slammed the carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer frame of his failing racquet to his skull) then resigned, playing to the photographer’s pit on a point won late in the final set, as if the match were an exhibition rather than abject execution.
“I saw him playing in very high level for the three hours in the match, and he has intensity to win all the matches in the tournament,” said del Potro, who took bronze away from Djokovic at the 2012 London Olympics but looked overmatched later in the summer in both Cincinnati and New York. “I wish the best for the rest of the tournament.”
Djokovic trails the career series versus Nadal 19-14, including their last three matches – all on clay. From the start of 2011 through the 2012 Australian Open, however, Djokovic defeated the former World No. 1 in seven straight finals, including three majors and four Masters events in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Rome. Not since the ATP World Tour Finals in 2010 has Nadal beaten Djokovic on the surface other than clay, with Djokovic owning the 11-5 advantage on hard courts. The Aussie finale back in late January may have been the most special – 5 hours, 53 minutes, most ever for a Grand Slam final and the longest match in the history of Melbourne. High praise: Nadal cites the 7-5, 4-6, 2-6, 7-6 (5), 5-7 loss as both “the toughest loss in my career” and “the best match I ever played.”
The only pair of players in the Open Era to meet each other in the final of all four Grand Slams consecutively, they’ve bested each other for Open titles and will be the premier rivalry in the sport as Hall of Famers in their mid-20s. Yet Djokovic holds the key advantages – a year younger, better on the asphalt, far fewer questions about health and the ability to endure the rigors of a full tennis season without faulty knees.
Up until the ultimate match in 2012, Djokovic appeared able to overcome the play of an elite field as well as the elements of fate: The sun, rain, even the wind, as was his charge in the semifinals.
Against fellow defensive whiz David Ferrer -- a player whom Djokovic defeated with straight-sets ease in their previous three meetings as professionals including the aforementioned Australian Open run earlier this year-- trying to execute points through 35-to-40 mile per hour gusts clearly jarred Djokovic at the start. Beginning the match in the calm between two tornadoes that touched down in New York City on Saturday, Ferrer got the early break and then a second as the champion had troubles getting points on his first serve (46 percent in the first set, compared to 84 percent versus del Potro). Djokovic missed on his only break point opportunity of the match as Ferrer countered with 10 winners, mixing in some pristine passing shots.
Down 5-2 and in danger of losing his first set of the tournament, US Open lead official Brian Earley pulled Djokovic and Ferrer off the Ashe court just after 5:00 p.m. ET as part of a larger evacuation of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Both men appeared frustrated at the stop-start, yet the postponement gave Djokovic something to consider overnight: “I felt much more comfortable on the court today than I did yesterday,” said Djokovic, with a grin in his post-match press conference. “Obviously the conditions were more brutal for all of us who played yesterday… You know, Ferrer was I think coping with the conditions much better than I did. He was handling it great. I mean, I haven't [found] any rhythm, so I didn't mind getting off the court yesterday, to be honest, and coming in today.”
On a placid Sunday, Ferrer served out the first set. Undeterred, Djokovic feasted upon the Spaniard’s second serve and established his superior groundstrokes, leveling the match with a 38-minute, 6-1 set triumph. Ferrer’s playing strengths – remarkable for a 30-year-old player, built upon agility, pushing and outclassing players with athleticism -- were lost with natural order restored. From the third set onward, the Serbian’s sensational serving had returned: 89 percent of first serve points won in the third (6-4), and then 92 percent to close it out in four (6-2). Return to form, return to the US Open final.
“Yesterday was windy; yesterday was better for me,” said Ferrer, who fell in his second Open semifinal, both times to Djokovic. “I play better because maybe Novak he didn't play so good in the start of the match. But, you know, every match is different. Every day is different. You wake up different feeling. So I don't know.”
Djokovic trails Federer in the career win tally as well – 16-12, with Federer also better on the hard courts (12-9) and at the majors (6-5). Federer also owns the sole Grand Slam final encounter here in 2007, and their most recent high-profile affairs: 6–3, 3–6, 6–4, 6–3 in the 2012 Wimbledon semis and 6-0, 7-6 (7) in Cincinnati, with Federer taking back the top ranking in the world. Since Djokovic’s renaissance in 2011 he is 6-3 against the Swiss, but it's noteworthy that Federer ended Djokovic's perfect 41–0 start to the 2011 season in the semifinals of the French Open. As far as competitors go, Federer cannot – and should not ever – be discounted.
Yet… with Federer’s quarterfinal loss to No. 6 Tomas Berdych on Wednesday night – his first evening session loss in Ashe after a 23-0 start to begin his career – the next time the two can meet at the US Open will be when the “Maestro” is 32 years of age and five years removed from his most recent Open championship. After years of owning Djokovic and driving him to five sets in two different semifinals in 2010 and 2011, last year being up two sets and having two match points on his serve as Djokovic withstood every forehand and every volley, unyielding.
“It's awkward having to explain this loss because I feel like I should be doing the other press conference. I didn't play so well at the very end. Sure, it's disappointing, but I have only myself to blame,” said Federer after the 2011 loss, dejected. “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.”
Djokovic remains six years Federer’s junior, owns four Slams to Federer’s one since the start of 2011 and has taken his best shots in this venue – and endured to become a US Open champion.
Swirling winds affected the early moments of the men’s final in 2012, with Djokovic committing four straight unforced errors at the jump and Murray breaking at love. Both players had troubles serving with the gusts at their back, especially Djokovic. On returns, his core contorted in vain tries to put racquet to ball, at times skidding to his knees behind the baseline. The first set seemed vitally important for victory: In their last 13 head-to-head contests, the winner of the first set had won the match. Djokovic would break back immediately because of the effect of the breezes. Murray would take the next two games and the 3-2 advantage before Djokovic rebounded once more and converted his second break point and the two would reach a tiebreak at 6-6. Thirty, 40, even a 54-shot rally tested the mettle of the finalists in that breaker – and after six set-point chances for the Olympic gold medalist, Murray would celebrate 12 points to 10 and one set to love.
Djokovic struggled to keep his footing once again, stumbling to a 4-0 deficit in the second set, continuing the flow of unforced errors – 19 in all. Nole came back once more with a two breaks, evening it at 5-all before falling 7-5 with a last Murray break, as he continued to anticipate and react. Down 2-0, Djokovic had at least righted himself in one regard: His first serve had begun to fall in with more regularity.
Murray would not break Djokovic again until the fifth-and-deciding set. Indeed, reminiscent of 2011 and Federer, Djokovic had brought it to the maximum. It would be the second time in 2012 the two would go to a fifth set at a Grand Slam, Djokovic winning back in the Melbourne semis 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (4), 6-1, 7-5, and being the better fifth set player: 17-5 all-time, including a 6-1 mark at the US Open.
Unfortunately, Murray had the true momentum, seizing the early break, then a second to lead 3-0. Djokovic did everything he could, battling through leg cramps and even employing eleventh-hour serve-and-volley tactics, but it was over as a pair of 131 mph aces from the No. 3-seed and Djokovic’s falling percentages – 45 percent of first serves in, with only 5 of 13 first serve points won – punctuated the longest final in Open history, tied with Mats Wilander’s win against Lendl in 1988 at four hours and 54 minutes.
"Today it was just not meant to be," said Djokovic. "You know, we played almost five hours. A lot of running, a lot of rallies. I think that says enough about the effort that we both put, you know, physical, mental effort. This time I didn't win the match, and that's sport."
A gesture beyond respect, Djokovic went around the net and offered Murray a hug rather than the customary over-the-net handshake, proud of Murray's accomplishment.
"Obviously when you're playing against someone like Novak who he has come back in a lot of matches, especially here, and he is in very good shape, you're going to have to match him right up until the end," said Murray, now 7-8 all-time against Djokovic and 1-2 at Slam events.
Djokovic will take this disappointment with him through until next year. With three Open finals in as many years and squarely in his prime, however, he'll have his chance for redemption soon enough after this night where it was all about his opponent.
"It's nice, definitely -- there is no doubt that he deserves to win the Grand Slam," said Djokovic. "I mean, playing so consistently well and winning against the top players for many times on many surfaces. He has proven today that he's a champ and he deserves to be where he is, no question about it.
"I'm just satisfied and proud of my achievement, you know. I know that I gave it all. That's always the goal."