It’s impossible to describe all the fantastic shots and courage shown by Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in their French Open semifinal. It was a blast from the past for Federer, who rose to the occasion with an aggressive mindset and an ease of movement right out of his heyday, two or three years ago. His defense was incredible, matching Djokovic in turning it into offense. Maybe most remarkable was how Federer backhand’s stood up to Djokovic’s lethal two-handed stroke. It was one of the keys to his scintillating 7-6 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) win.
The crowd was in absolute delirium by the final stages of the fourth set. In an added variable, if Djokovic had won that set, the fifth would be played tomorrow because of fading light. Most people gave Federer little chance to finish the match on Friday, when Djokovic broke serve at 4-4 in the fourth. After playing almost flawlessly for so long, Federer began to look vulnerable and Djokovic look poised to force a fifth set.
But the Swiss broke back right away, getting the final point with an inside-in forehand winner that had the crowd off its feet and cheering wildly.
The match eventually went to a tiebreak, where the points seemed to alternate between strokes of genius and nervous, unforced errors. But from 3-all, Federer found a final burst and was able to seal the deal with an ace on his third match point. His loud yelp of celebration afterward was proof of just how much the victory meant to him. The emotion on his face told the tale of how intense the match was—certainly the best of the year by any standards.
There is no doubt Federer caught Djokovic by surprise with his refusal to step down from the challenge of hitting shot for shot with his younger rival. Except for a brief period after Djokovic broke serve to take a 4-2 lead in the opening set, when he seemed to be outhitting Federer, the world No. 3 gave as good as he got, showing little of the vulnerability we've seen at other times this year against both Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, Federer's upcoming opponent in the final.
Tactically, Federer had a lot of success chipping returns short to Djokovic, forcing him to try and handle difficult shots close to the net. But tactics aside, the emotional and physical drive of Federer's was most impressive. You sensed there was a lot of motivation on his part to show that he could challenge Djokovic after three prior losses to him this year. The pride of a great champion was rekindled on Friday, and it was clear that the Grand Slam stage of Roland Garros was where he wanted to make the statement—that he is still a factor in the top ranks of the game.