OK, history has eluded us, and, no matter how thrilling and nerve-wracking the match we just saw was—and it was easily the match of the tournament, if not the year—that takes a few minutes to get over. But look at it this way: What are the chances that Roger and Rafa would have put on a more scintillating and dramatic show than Roger and Novak? It’s hard to imagine.
From the Djokovic perspective, it’s just too bad this couldn’t have been a final. It deserved to be a final. He reacted, naturally, as if it were a final, staring, stunned, at his delirious parents in their I-don’t-give-a-damn-if-Anna-Wintour-is-here, my-son-is-awesome T-shirts. It was a poignant moment, I thought. Djokovic, like his mom and dad, wears his ambition on his sleeve—and his back, and his hat—and that ambition was always to be No. 1 and to unseat Federer. Three years ago, when he reached the final here and won in Australia, Djokovic appeared to be the streamlined future of the modern game, a player who fused clean and uncluttered ball-striking with an uncannily flexible athleticism.
Since then, while he’s remained in the Top 5, Djokovic has also had to learn to live with being a third-fiddle—this will be his first Slam final since he won in Melbourne in 2008. At times, like last year’s semi against Federer at the Open, Djokovic has accepted his fate too readily. But it was clear from the beginning on Saturday that we were going to get him at his best. Federer was sharp from the baseline early; 99 percent of the time that would be enough. But Djokovic was on every ball, giving as good as he got, if not better. Federer drove Djokovic back, but he ended most of the points on his own heels.
Djokovic’s head wasn’t ready to keep up with what his body, his hands, his shots were doing. He botched two service games and lost the first set; he botched one and lost the third. Otherwise, it was his match through four sets. The fifth belonged to both of them. This was the tennis I’ve been waiting all year to see. To put it in British sportswriting terms, each player had the answers to the other one’s questions. Federer picked up his serving in the fifth, but Djokovic lifted his return higher. Federer showed off his flick flat backhand pass, a shot that no one else has ever owned. But Djokovic’s passes were threaded to equal perfection. It got to the point in the middle of the fifth where neither of them wanted to venture forward unless there was no other choice. Federer remained passive on his returns, and Djokovic refused to come in even after cracking an utterly devastating approach, which he did many times. I couldn’t blame either of them. Both had been burned enough times up there.
Federer reached double match point, but there was something in Djokovic today at the start that stuck with him until the end. He was, simply, hitting the ball too well to lose. He smacked a titanic swinging volley on one match point and a blistering forehand an inch from the line on another. And when he served for the match and went down break point, he swung with total confidence at a forehand that Federer couldn’t handle. Watching the final rally, listening to Djokovic work and grunt, I thought: He’s not going to miss.
Now, in less than 24 hours, he gets the rested and hungry Nadal, who also happens to be playing the best hard-court tennis of his career. Before his semi with Mikhail Youzhny, I said that the Russian would be able to hit his backhand down the line, and that that would trouble the lefty Nadal. Ha! Youzhny spent the afternoon darting from sideline to sideline and flailing futilely. Nadal’s shots look heavier than ever, and he was expert at finding the inside-out corner deep into Youzhny’s forehand. He dismissed a guy who had beaten him four times on hard courts, and made the No. 12 player in the world look like a sparring partner at best.
Should we expect anything else in the final? Is Nadal a lock? It’s certainly all working in his favor, and he couldn’t ask for a better chance to finish off his career Slam. But there’s work to be done. Nadal is 14-7 against Djokovic for his career (the same record he has against Federer), but Djokovic is 7-3 on hard courts, with straight-set wins in their last three meetings. While Federer and Nadal have staged their share of classics, Djokovic and Nadal may be the more entertaining rivalry from a rally-to-rally standpoint. Remember Hamburg 2008? Beijing 2008? Madrid 2009? All were epics of baseline brutality. And they all developed the same way. Djokovic started strong, using his ability to drill the ball down the line with power and accuracy to put Nadal on the defensive. But as the games wore on, Nadal wore Djokovic down with his speed and accuracy and cussed determination. Djokovic couldn’t keep finding his spots on those risky shots over the high part of the net.
Only one of those matches was on hard courts, at the Olympics in 2008, which was played with the same ball and on the same surface as the Open. It went down to the wire, and Djokovic lost it on a horrifying shank overhead at 4-5 in the third. Nadal, who is No. 1 and may be playing the very finest and heaviest tennis of his career, must be the favorite. Djokovic, the more fatigued player, will likely work to shorten points. But while he’ll be more fatigued, he’ll also come out on an emotional high after Saturday. I can imagine Djokovic firing away early and winning a first set. Then I can imagine Nadal winning the rest.