NEW YORK—By the time Novak Djokovic stood, a little unsteadily, to serve for the match today at 6-5 in the fifth set, it felt like the final chapter in a trilogy. In one sense, this see-saw five-setter had been a mirror image of last year’s semifinal here. On that day, Djokovic had taken big cuts when he was down match points and twice found the corners, and he'd done the same today, with a preposterously blistering return of serve when he was facing double match point at 3-5 in the fifth. But all along this afternoon, there had also been echoes of their last Grand Slam semifinal, in Paris. Federer was loose, as he had been at Roland Garros, he was in control for two sets, he was defying age and flying along the baseline, pushed by a vociferously supportive crowd, and he had eked out a crucial first-set tiebreaker. In Paris, Djokovic had served for the fourth set only to be broken and lose the match a few minutes later. This time Djokovic held his nerve, and his serve.
So the last chapter ended like the first, with everyone in the stadium, including Federer, shaking their heads at Djokovic's soon-to-be-legendary forehand return. With the match seemingly in hand, Federer had hit a safe but solid swinging serve wide into the deuce court, only to see Djokovic haul off. “I don’t understand going for a shot like that on match point,” Federer said afterward, and even Djokovic admitted that he had “gotten lucky today.” He was right, but he was also being modest: When you’re 63-2 for a season, you're entitled to say you've made your own luck.
The first four sets had been mirror images of each other. For two of them, Federer dictated the action. He used his forehand to move Djokovic around, while the Serb, as he had in Paris, came out tight. It all spun 180 degrees in the second game of the third set. Djokovic’s nerves had given way to an edgy aggression by that point—he had nothing to lose. His shots began to penetrate more while Federer’s found the net. By the middle of the fourth set, even Federer’s footwork had begun to betray him. He was a step slow getting into position for routine ground strokes.
I was prepared, when Federer went up in the fifth, to say that the key moment had come when Djokovic squandered a set point when he was up 5-1 in the fourth, on Federer’s serve. He played that game casually and Federer eventually held, which meant he was able to start the fifth set serving. His confidence quickly returned.
But that potential turning point is now forgotten in the wake of what happened at 5-3. Yes, Djokovic “gambled,” as he said, with the forehand at 15-40, but he went on to fight off a tough body serve at 30-40, before Federer put a mid-court ball into the tape. In that point, you had the match, and this season, in a microcosm. Djokovic’s best shot came through for him when he needed it, while Federer couldn’t find the court when it counted most.
Until the very end, neither player was at their best at the same time. But this was a classic for its drama. There was a nerve-wracking, both-guys-leaning-over-the-precipice-at-the-same-time feel in the arena once it got to 5-5. The crowd was for Federer, but there was a strong Nole contingent in the upper deck. A signature gesture from each player stands out:
Federer walked out having squandered match points for the second straight year here to Djokovic; having lost his second straight Grand Slam match after being up two sets; and having fnished his first season with no major titles since 2002. But he still managed to turn for the crowd and give us a gutted thumbs-up: That had to be tough.
Djokovic, down two sets and looking for any ray of hope, discovered two supporters in the second row; they were standing and cheering every point he won. He didn't appear to know them, but he began to look to them as he mounted his comeback. After he hammered that forehand return at 3-5, he saw them get up again, but nobody else in the stadium joined them. So Djokovic, despite still being down match point, lifted his arms and brought the noise in the house to deafening levels. He was hanging over the precipice, but he was smiling.
Federer said afterward that he couldn’t fathom his opponent's mentality at that moment. Who could? Who can explain 63-2? But there you have him, the 2011 Novak Djokovic: He'd played the percentages all year and won; this time he rolled the dice. He won again.